Crime and Punishment In Manila

At 10:40 a.m on Sept. 6, a squad of perhaps half a dozen men reportedly armed with M-16 rifles and a grenade launcher, according to police, invaded the cavernous SM Mall in Dasmarinas, Cavite, about 35 km south of Manila, and interrupted personnel for Banco De Oro as they were about to unload cash into an automated teller machine.

When a security guard put up a fight, he was shot three times and wounded. A second security guard was wounded as well. The robbers escaped with an estimated P4-5 million (US$90,000 to 112,000) in cash. They dumped their car a few blocks away and made a clean getaway in a second vehicle. The local governor announced on television that in contrast to the bus hostage debacle, the police had responded with alacrity and courage in attempting to catch the fleeing gunmen and would be rewarded – although they hadn't caught anybody.

This episode of cops and robbers is more typical, both for its violence and its reward for doing nothing, is more common than anybody would like to think in the Philippines, even if it is overshadowed by the horrific events of Aug. 22, when eight Hong Kong tourists and their ex-cop captor died in a disastrously mishandled shootout that left the country humiliated and facing furious questions from the Hong Kong and Chinese governments.

And, as a report by Pacific Strategies & Assessments, a Manila-based risk assessment group, pointed out, on the same day the bus hijacking was being botched in Rizal Park, an incident took place "that characterizes today's Philippine risk climate and is equally critical for foreigners to understand."

A van load of eight Korean church pastors left Ninoy Aquino International Airport — a heavily urbanized, busy and presumably safe area — at 12:30 am and ran into a nightmare when armed men stopped the van by firing shots at it. When one of the Koreans attempted to resist, the gunmen shot and killed him, then robbed the others of their cash, jewelry, mobile telephones and other personal belongings. They then took two of the Koreans hostage and sped off, later dropping the two off at a deserted location.

It wasn't the first time foreigners have been kidnapped at the airport. In July, gunmen tailed a family of four out of the airport, rammed their own car into the family vehicle, and when the victims stopped to inspect the damage, robbed them of cash, jewelry and personal belongings. At least two similar incidents against foreigners have taken place this year, along with several more against locals, according to PSA. The gangsters are suspected of using spotters inside the arrival hall to target affluent-seeming victims.

Although it appears too early to be able to measure the effect, the hostage incident and the growing spillover from such episodes as the Korean van hijacking appear to be having an effect on tourism, especially from China and Hong Kong. The Philippine Star, published in Manila, said that "Island Souvenirs, the largest souvenir store chain in the Philippines, posted an average of 10 percent sales decline in its Bohol, Metro Metro and Vigan outlets, while 12 per-cent sales drop is being experienced in its Boracay outlet."

Anecdotally, airplanes flying into Manila appear to be carrying far fewer passengers, and they appear to be Filipinos returning home rather than Chinese on their way for a holiday. Likewise, it is too early to tell about the effect on the foreign direct investment climate, although it is already relatively anemic. FDI fell by 31 percent in the second quarter after increasing over previous quarters. Total FDI amounted to P13.8 billion (US$310.3 million) for the quarter.

Businessmen and tourists have a right to be concerned. This is a gun culture, where the crack of automatic rifle fire echoes throughout the countryside, just for entertainment purposes.

Historically, according to Crime and Society, which measures comparative criminology across the world, "Widespread possession of firearms — including automatic rifles — was another factor contributing to crime. Undisciplined private armies, usually maintained by local politicians and wealthy families, and numerous organized crime gangs were the biggest violators of firearms laws."

At the same time, law enforcement is problematical. The Philippines has long been plagued by a criminal justice system that barely functions. Court proceedings are drawn out for years, judges are known to accept bribes and wealthy criminals, if they are convicted, can usually buy a cozy prison cell or even live in their own homes. The national police are something of a national joke. Poorly trained and underpaid, they are chiefly known for soliciting bribes from taxi drivers and motorists, especially when school fees are due or the Christmas holidays are approaching.

It isn't just the cops. PSA, in a warning to businessmen, pointed out that crime rises during the so-called "ber" months – September through December in what may be the world's longest Christmas season.

Robbery and theft, the organization reported, surge during the season. 2009 crime statistics show that reported theft and property cases went from 445 in the first half to 679 in the second half – a 35 percent increase and almost certainly a fraction of the real total.

"Police attribute the climax to targeting of early shopping sprees as well as the typical surge in overseas remittances during the Christmas season,' PSA said. "Criminals also take advantage of the confusion and population density at Metro Manila's numerous shopping malls as well as the hundreds of bazaars and flea markets that spring up in various commercial districts."

Kidnapping has long appeared to be something of a national pastime in the Philippines, with wealthy Filipinos and foreigners often targeted. Three persons were reported kidnapped in July, although the total is probably much higher as victims usually pay off and keep quiet. One recent case involved a 39-year-old Filipina married to an American who had come back to the country briefly only to have her car forced off the road — also in Dasmarinas — in April. She was held by the kidnappers and transferred from city to city while the gangsters attempted to negotiate a US$1 million ransom through her cell phone with relatives in the United States.

After being held for weeks, she was moved to a safe house near Tagaytay City, where neighbors grew suspicious and called the police, who invaded the safe house at 3 am and shot two of the kidnappers dead. A third suffered multiple gunshot wounds in the firefight. The woman was rescued unharmed on May 7, an unusually upbeat ending.

There is no apparent solution to criminality in the country. Guns are commonplace almost everywhere. With few people trusting the police, a thriving business exists in private security for the wealthy. The less well off have to hope for the best and most everyone has a story of being pick-pocketed or having a bag snatched.

The vast majority of crimes go unreported, experts say, again because there is such widespread doubt that the police will do anything about a complaint anyway.

The deeper problem in the police, of course, lies in the fact that many kidnappers, hold-up artists, smugglers and other flavors of local bandit are either off-duty police or soldiers.

The late dictator Ferdinand Marcos used to deal with this corrupt mess by occasionally organizing a band of "crime busters" and announcing that a get-tough policy was in effect. Batches of presumed criminals would be shot en masse and dumped in local rivers for a few days. That would settle things for a time and put the fear of God in the bad guys. Little seems to rattle the bad guys these days, including bodies in the river.