Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Crime and No Punishment in Philippines

On Monday morning, a squad of perhaps half a dozen men, reportedly armed with M-16 rifles and a grenade launcher, invaded the cavernous SM Mall about 35 kilometers south of Manila and interrupted personnel for Banco De Oro as they were about to load cash into an ATM. When a security guard put up a fight, he was shot three times. The robbers escaped with an estimated $90,000 to $112,000 in cash.

This episode of cops and robbers is more typical 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.

Pacific Strategies & Assessments, a Manila-based risk assessment group, recently pointed out that on the day of the bus hijacking, an incident took place “that characterizes today’s Philippine risk climate and is equally critical for foreigners to understand.”

A van loaded with eight South Korean church pastors left Ninoy Aquino International Airport — a heavily urbanized, busy and presumably safe area — at 12:30 a.m. 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, cell phones and other personal belongings.

They then took two of the Koreans hostage and sped off, later dropping them 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, then robbed the family when they got out to inspect the damage.

Several other similar incidents have taken place this year, targeting both foreigners and locals.

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 said that Island Souvenirs, the largest souvenir chain in the Philippines, had recently seen a 10 to 12 percent drop in four of its stores.

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.

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

At the same time, law enforcement is problematic. 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.

Kidnapping has long appeared to be something of a national pastime as well, with wealthy Filipinos and foreigners often targeted.

Three people were reported kidnapped in July, although the total is probably much higher as victims usually pay and keep quiet.

One recent case involved a 39-year-old Filipino woman, married to an American, who had come back to the country only to have her car forced off the road in April.

The kidnappers held her, transferring her from city to city while they attempted to negotiate a $1 million ransom through her cell phone with relatives in the United States.

After several weeks, she was moved to a safe house near Tagaytay City. There, neighbors grew suspicious and called the police, who invaded the house at 3 a.m. and shot the three kidnappers, killing two and wounding one.

The woman was rescued unharmed on May 7, an unusually upbeat ending.

There is no apparent solution to the crime problem. 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, because there is such widespread doubt that the police will do anything about a complaint.

The deeper problem in the police, of course, lies in the fact that many kidnappers, muggers, smugglers and other local bandits are themselves either off-duty police officers 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.

Nothing seems to rattle them these days. Asia Sentinel

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