Magtanim (ng bala) ay di biro

It’s been (insert adjective here) Halloween for Filipinos.

The ghost that haunted the country is known as “tanim-bala.” Basically, it’s a way for extortionist to forcibly take money from travelers by planting bullets into their bags/luggages to make it appear that the bullet has been there before inspection. The governing law regarding unauthorized carry of live ammunition is Republic Act 10591 (full text), and the punishment is rather severe. Scammers take advantage of the law and the fact that the victim might miss his or her flight.

The netizen reaction was negative, and rightly so. But it went beyond the usual outrage. It went viral, like a frenzy prior to an orgy, to the point that foreign news outfits reported on the issue. See Airport Security in the Philippines Have Been Putting Bullets in Luggage to Extort PassengersPhilippine legislators angered by Manila ‘bullet scam’“Airport officials in the Philippines are suspected of planting bullets in passengers’ luggage”.

Sonny Coloma downplayed the issue (see Palace downplays ‘laglag-bala’: Put issues in proper context), and it only added lubricant to the orgy.

In a press conference, Department of Transportation and Communications Secretary Jun Abaya,  Office for Transportation Security Administrator Roland Recomono, Manila International Airport Authority General Manager Angel Honrado, and PNP Aviation Security Group Chief Francisco Balagtas presented relevant data on number of incidents of ammunition detected and cases filed. (Read the full transcript here.)

The data shows that, relative to the number of passengers who flew out of NAIA, the total number of  cases is only 0.008%, making Abaya state that “it appears that cases have been blown out of proportion.”  Abaya took pains to state that despite the small number, “a single case of any passenger wrongly charged, extorted upon, victimized by planting, unjustly charged in court, is unjust.”

Most of the media reports highlighted the “blown out of proportion” bit but not the “unjust” part. See this Inquirer report (Abaya downplays bullet scam but asks lawmakers to review law), Philippine Star (Abaya: Only .004% of travelers nabbed), ABS-CBN News (No NAIA syndicate behind ‘tanim bala’: Abaya).

Most of the netizens reacted negatively to the presented data. The presentation, netizens said, is just a way of belittling and downplaying the issue. Some strident netizens even asserted that contextualizing through data just shows that the government is callous and insensitive.

All that without even taking a minute to analyze the data.

The data was presented because the outrageous outrage online claimed the tanim-bala scam is widespread and prevalent. There are only 3 or 4 cases wherein victims legally complained of extortion and declared they are victims of tanim-bala (previously called laglag-bala). See American nabbed for carrying a bullet at Naia seeks new probeJapanese, OFW arrested at NAIA for bullets in bag (also shows that the government acted by suspending screeners, contrary to perception that no actions were taken), and Traveler tells how ‘bala’ works. (ABS-CBN has a list but the Japanese admitted owning the bullets so it’s not a tanim bala case. See LIST: Passengers allegedly victimized by ‘tanim-bala’.)

Everyone of my generation know who Kuya Bodjie is. And his tweet days ago is very relevant and very true:


So. Because data isn’t sexy and “irrelavant” to most people, the goal post has been moved.

Now the netizens are crying “Callous!” “Insensitive!” Like the people when Pontius Pilate presented persons to be let go.

Has the government not done anything at all? OTS says they’ve changed procedure. Screeners won’t touch your bags. They will take pictures/snap shot of the x-ray. Bag will only be opened by passenger in the presence of lawyer/third party or OTS supervisor.

For those cases of extortion, screeners involved were relieved (as due process dictates) and are being investigated. NBI is already involved in the investigation.

Netizens are not impressed. They were calling for heads to roll, like people chose Bar… OK never mind. Bongbong Marcos told the Palace by the Pasig to sack the NAIA GM (Marcos: NAIA chief accountable on Tanim Bala). The senator and the people betray gross ignorance of the organizational structure and airport operations. All the cases involved x-ray screeners, who are all under OTS. MIAA is only involved in management of the airport and is no way involved in security screening.

While Senators Grace Poe, Bongbong Marcos, and Ralph Recto called for investigations, Senator Bam Aquino and Representative Leni Robredo filed bills to decrimininalize carrying limited amount of bullets (see Leni Robredo Files Measure vs ‘Tanim Bala’ GangRobredo wants to decriminalize possession of bullet). While no one called the calls made by the 3 senators as grandstanding, the Aquino and Robredo bills are not yet even available online as of this writing yet the idea is already being criticized. People did not get the brilliance of the filing of bills.

Poe, Marcos, and Recto called for an investigation “in aid of legislation,” hopefully with the end goal of amending or drafting a new law. The cynical me says ASA KA PA. Aquino and Robredo filed bills. And if you know the legislative process, you know that committees will conduct hearings about the proposed bills. You already have the end goal, and you only need to refine it by conducting hearings and investigation. But that brilliance is lost on many.

Again, I refer you to Kuya Bodjie’s tweet.

So in the end, we Filipinos created a fire out of farts started by friction from all that orgiastic rage, and then the world noticed, and we wept that the world noticed. We shot ourselves in the foot but we pretend there’s no wound.

What should Abaya and others do? Aside from what they had said, to build trust and establish accountability they should:

  • Give a timeline for each action.
  • Identify persons who will complete such task.
  • State the expected results and how to determine success or failure.
  • Specify how to hold government people accountable.

Citizens, for their part, should:

  • Report all violators of the law immediately, specially if victimized by unscrupulous people at the airport. Nope, making a Facebook post is not reporting.
  • Stop adding to the problem by posting unverified social media posts and sharing incendiary memes. Humor is OK but if memes make untrue assertions in guise of humor, they are not helping.
  • Know your rights. Know the process during screening at the airport. Arrive way ahead of your scheduled departure time.

It’s time for rationality to return and decency to govern our discussion of the topic. Let us let the government do its job, bring justice for the victims and jail the guilty. Netizens should be more circumspect of what they post and share, but should also remain vigilant and call the government to task if it fails to clean up its act.