From ‘laglag-bala’ to ‘laslas-maleta’

It’s only been a couple of years since that spate of laglag-bala incidents at the Ninoy Aquino International Airport drew attention to airport thieves preying on helpless travelers.

The story broke in mainstream media in a big way in 2015 and the months leading to the 2016 elections.

President Rodrigo Roa Duterte, at the time a candidate, vowed to clean up NAIA and many Filipino frequent travelers and those working and residing abroad voted for him on the strength of this and his other promises of reform.

After he was elected, the laglag-bala incidents trickled to a very few, if any. However, with that particular trick exposed, two other modi operandi seem to have sprung up—the laslas-maleta and what I’m going to call ‘Game and Watch’.

In laglag-bala, a bullet or several are inserted in a suitcase. When the bag is inspected and the bullets found, the traveler is shaken down for money to avoid the inconvenience of a lawsuit or even jail time, as under Philippine law it is illegal to carry unlicensed firearms and live ammunition on an aircraft.

Laslas-maleta is more straightforward—it’s a box cutter or other sharp implement along the length of the zipper tape beside the teeth chain. Last week, netizen Marty de Leon posted photos of a gaping suitcase, slashed along the length of its zipper and with contents exposed. The bag belonged to his parents who had flown in from Japan.

Marty’s father Gobby said that some P20,000 worth of makeup and other items that they intended as presents for Christmas were missing from the bag.

Was the bag actually slashed? I work in an airport and I haven’t heard yet of a suitcase bursting along its zipper in that manner. And it is part of handling procedures for ramp workers to bag and tape up damaged luggage before it goes on the belt to the carousel. This is not an isolated occurrence—on that same post, other netizens commented having gone through similar bag-slashing incidents.

A recent high-profile laslas-maleta, or rather bukas-maleta, theft happened last August when four baggage handlers at Naia admitted to stealing the jewelry case of Hulya, wife of Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu, from her luggage. The stolen items were found in the locker of the one of the perpetrators.

In the Game and Watch modus, airport workers tried to game the bin inspection procedure to lift an Apple Watch belonging to the grandchild of netizen Jorge Hizon’s sister. The grandchild was told to place the watch in the bin, but it was not in the bin after it passed through the x-ray machine. After Hizon’s sister stood her ground and complained, an airport worker produced the watch, claiming it had fallen under the x-ray machine.

The perpetrators of laglag-bala and Game and Watch seem to be airport personnel who work in inspection and security—it is at these points that the shakedowns and thefts occur. Laslas-maleta, though, can happen at any point and particularly on the ramp. For the former, a government agency is in charge. For the latter, it is the concern of airlines, who should implement stricter control and monitoring of their baggage handlers.

In both cases, passengers, if they wish, should lodge complaints with the PNP Aviation Security Group and the manager of the terminal, so that proper investigations can be conducted.

Incidents like these place the country on the map of ‘worst destinations.’ It’s difficult enough to entice tourists to come over given the multitude of other, safer, places they can go. The fear of theft and extortion takes away from the experience of “it’s more fun in the Philippines.” And to think at this point they haven’t even stepped out of the airport, but already they’ve been robbed.

People go to great lengths now to safeguard their luggage. A familiar sight close to the Philippine Air Lines check-in counters at the San Francisco International Airport is a fellow who sells luggage locks and performs a unique service —wrapping luggage in plastic wrap. This became popular at Naia and other airports during the laglag-bala scandal.

Cling wrap and the newfangled spandex luggage covers help protect suitcase zippers, which are the most vulnerable parts of a suitcase—a mere ballpoint pen jammed in between the teeth chain can open it up, leaving the sliders with the lock intact.

With the holiday season approaching, it’s expected that many balikbayans and OFWs will make the trip back home to be with their families. It’s a good idea to buy sturdy padlocks and a box or two of cling wrap before the journey. It’s better to be overcautious than to lose those pasalubongs and Christmas presents to the incorrigible thieves that still infest Naia.  

Dr. Ortuoste is a California-based writer. FB: Jenny Ortuoste, Twitter: @jennyortuoste

Topics: President Rodrigo Roa Duterte , laglag-bala , NAIA , laslas-maleta , what I’m going to call , baggage handlers
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