Cling-wrapped luggage is new normal in Manila airport
NAIA, Philippines–Returning travelers and overseas contract workers are gripped by fear and anxiety as they line up the international airport security screening where several incidents of the “laglag bala” scam have been reported.
Investigation is ongoing as the alleged planting of live ammunition (usually a .22 caliber bullet) in passengers’ bags for purposes of extorting money from innocent victims pointed to personnel of the Office of Transportation Security (OTS) as the possible culprits. They are in charge of airport inspection and X-ray machine stations.
The problem promises to get worse, unless the authorities at NAIA acknowledge that there is a real problem and until preventive solutions are implemented. Condemnations by political personalities are not helping to put travelers at ease.
NAIA General Manager Jose Angel Honrado continues to be oblivious of the real concerns of OFWs and international travelers as he appeared on TV and radio interviews insisting that there is no clear evidence of a syndicate involved in the bullet planting scam.
Instead, he announced that the incidents and arrests are considerably lower this year as compared to the previous years. In essence, he admitted that the scam has been around for many years now. It was not until the first case charging the OTS of a scam that the scandal exploded in social media that this modus operandi was uncovered.
The earlier case of Lane Michael White reported by INQUIRER.net is even more glaring. He was bound for Coron with his American missionary father and Filipina stepmother, when he was found in possession of a bullet and recommended for arraignment for a criminal offense after he signed a “waiver.”
White is now seeking reinvestigation of his case for alleged failure of proper inquest procedure and extortion by OTS personnel. The task of proving a traveler’s innocence poses a real challenge because the law penalizing the possession of a live ammunition is a statutory law, or “malum prohibitum,” where the criminal intent of the accused is immaterial.
The mere possession of the bullet can drag a traveler into a lengthy prosecution. This is the biggest fear of the foreign workers and international travelers who may have to stay over and consequently lose their jobs abroad.
In case OTS personnel requests to open your luggage–this is the turning point when a bullet may in fact be found, or worse, “planted” during the search—here are a few tips from legal experts:
Travelers must request witnesses, including a police officer to be present during this search, and inquire what specific object do they want to examine. It is important to ask the baggage inspectors to show empty hands, that nothing is concealed between their sleeves and their gloves. Passengers must be quick to look out for their own bags as these are slowly moved into the X-ray machine.
More importantly, the rights of the person being accused must be emphasized. Do not sign any document. Demand attorney representation and call members of their embassy (if the traveler is a foreigner) to assist them in this early stage.
The accused does not have to answer any question or make any statement during the investigation, unless assisted by a lawyer who speaks his/her language. Official involvement of the respective embassies will help immensely in thwarting further false allegations or any attempt to extort money from the foreign passenger.
United States APEC advisory
In the meantime, the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Ministers and Leaders’ Meetings will take place during the week of November 16 – 20, and the U.S. Embassy in Manila has circulated an advisory to inform American citizens and residents that the U.S. Embassy will be closed during this period for the usual consular services.
Under the advisory, “assistance will be available to American citizens with only urgent emergencies. For emergency assistance, American citizens may contact the embassy at (63) (2) 301-2000.”
“The Philippine Government expects leaders from the 21 APEC economies along with up to 20,000 delegates to visit Manila during this time period. During the week of November 16-20, major roads in Manila will be closed around the Ninoy Aquino International Airport (NAIA), the U.S. Embassy, major hotels, and APEC venues.
“Authorities are anticipating greatly reduced mobility in the city and limited emergency resources. The NAIA will be closed on November 17. Travelers should expect arrival and departure delays and flight cancellations throughout the week.”
The U.S. Department of State also advises American citizens to register in the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP) online at https://step.state.gov/step/ to receive travel alerts and updates to countries of their destination. The website further provides guidance, protective rights and services that are available to U.S. citizens in case of emergency.
The expected influx of dignitaries and visitors have caused foreign–based workers and tourists alike to take precaution in the light of the scandal involving OTS screening procedures.
Outbound passengers, and those taking connecting flights to domestic airports are advised to be vigilant about their packages, to use sealed carry-on luggage and to keep an eye on their luggage while undergoing X-ray screening.
It is noteworthy that NAIA Terminal 1 does not offer wrapping services, only NAIA Terminal 3 servicing limited airlines offer these services.
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