A "bullet-planting" scam at Manila's airport is drawing public outrage and ridicule, and has forced the United Nations to advise its employees to take extra precautions when travelling to the Philippines.
A number of staff, security personnel and taxi drivers at the Ninoy Aquino International Airport (NAIA) have been accused of sneaking live ammunition and shell casings into the carry-on bags of unsuspecting travellers. The targets, threatened with a criminal charge and detention, are then allegedly shaken down for money.
The scam first drew public attention after Mr Lane White, a 20-year-old American missionary, accused personnel from NAIA's Office for Transportation Security of trying to extort 30,000 pesos (S$895) from him after they allegedly found a .22-calibre bullet in his bag on Sept 17. He refused to pay up, and instead spent six days in jail.
The United Nations advised its staff travelling to the Philippines "to keep your luggage with you, lock your luggage, and consider wrapping your luggage in plastic as an extra security measure". Sources said the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank have issued similar internal memos to their staff.
Since then, there have been several similar incidents, at times involving old women, travellers in wheelchairs and Filipinos bound for jobs abroad, as well as foreigners.
Past victims of the scam who chose to pay up and keep quiet are now coming forward to offer testimonies and lodge complaints.
A British man, in a 2012 post on the travel website TripAdvisor, warned travellers of the extortion racket. He said his daughter was forced to pay US$1,000 (S$1,400) to an airport security worker in Manila who accused her of attempting to smuggle a bullet casing.
Yet, despite wide media coverage, rumblings online and news that several airport workers have been relieved of their posts and are under investigation, there are still reports of new cases. In fact, the number of people falling victim to the scam appears to have spiked in recent weeks.
Among the recent victims was Ms Nimfa Fontamillas, 65, who was on her way to Singapore last Sunday to watch her grandson play football. Security staff found a bullet in a side pocket of her handbag, which Ms Fontamillas had locked and sealed. She said the situation was absurd as she does not even own a gun.
A week earlier, Ms Gloria Ortinez, 56, a maid bound for Hong Kong, was held at the airport when a bullet wrapped in a red cloth was found inside her bag.
She spent two nights in jail, but was released when it emerged that the bullet submitted as evidence against her did not match the bullet that was supposed to have been seized from her at the airport.
Alarmed by these accounts, travellers have been paying 160 pesos to have their bags sealed shut with plastic at the airport or wrapping their luggage with masking tape.
The UN advised its staff travelling to the Philippines "to keep your luggage with you, lock your luggage, and consider wrapping your luggage in plastic as an extra security measure". Sources said the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank have issued similar internal memos to their staff.
Three lawmakers have asked President Benigno Aquino to fire Manila International Airport Authority general manager Jose Honrado for allegedly failing to prevent a criminal practice that, according to one of them, has become a "national embarrassment".
Senator Ralph Recto has called for a congressional investigation, while the Department of Justice has created a task force to root out those behind the scam.
Mr Aquino himself has ordered the Transportation Department to look into the matter.
In a news briefing yesterday, Transport Secretary Joseph Abaya said the situation seems to "have been blown out of proportion". He added that the number of passengers apprehended for cases involving live ammunition was just 0.004 per cent of Manila airport's total annual traffic of 34.2 million.
Mr Abaya said 1,394 cases have been recorded so far this year, compared with 1,813 last year and 2,184 in 2013. Yet, as he was speaking at the press conference, two more passengers were being held at the airport after bullets were discovered in their luggage.