There’s a larger narrative behind the tanim-bala (bullet-planting) scam at our international airport.
For starters, there is this widespread belief in the efficacy of bullets as amulets, or anting-anting. Amulets are objects that serve different purposes. In the case of the bullets, which you can easily buy in front of Quiapo Church—a kind of supermarket for anting-anting—the belief is that these protect people from harm; in addition, these are believed to be fertility charms, helping to get a woman pregnant (and, presumably, helping a man to get someone pregnant).
The bullets no longer contain live ammunition and so they’re really just pieces of metal. But they are particularly popular with overseas Filipino workers, who see the bullets as “live” in a supernatural sense, useful in a world (and the high seas) that is seen as fraught with danger. I doubt that male OFWs take a bullet out as a fertility charm, hoping to get people pregnant overseas—but who knows?
In the past, there was no problem with taking the bullets out of the country. But officials of airports overseas—notably, I am told, Changi in Singapore—began to complain about both male and female OFWs bringing in these bullets. The ban came from outside, and we had to enforce it on our outbound travelers.
I can imagine that foreigners, particularly other Asians, found the bullets to be novel and also began to buy them, and to try to smuggle them out, like Filipinos did. I’ve seen them sold in an occasional travel shop, together with other souvenirs.
It has been a cat-and-mouse game all these years, with Filipinos and foreigners trying to evade metal detectors to smuggle the bullets out. Many simply put the bullets in their checked-in luggage.
I did ask, some years back, one airport employee about what would happen if a traveler were caught with a bullet. She said it was quite simple: Airport personnel would confiscate the bullet, much like a bottle of liquid and other items banned from check-in, but they had a logbook where the traveler signed, acknowledging that he or she had given up the anting-anting. And that was it.
The problem arose when some “entrepreneurs” at the airport saw an opportunity for extortion. They’d plant a bullet in a traveler’s hand-carried bag, “discover” it, and then threaten the traveler with extreme action. The traveler would then offer to pay up to end the matter.
But then these entrepreneurs didn’t anticipate that the more extortions they attempted, the greater the chance that eventually, someone would complain. And complain they did, including one woman who came out to disclose how she had resisted the extortion and how the airport personnel eventually gave in and agreed to just “confiscate” the bullet and enter the incident in a logbook. The woman said she never even packed the bullet, in the first place.
To soothe our national ego, I should mention that Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi airport, which had just been inaugurated back in 2009, also suffered from a spate of extortion allegations, mainly from foreigners who accused of shoplifting from the duty-free shops. The security personnel would then ask for an amount of money so the travelers could move on.
After international publicity—and the usual denials from the duty-free and airport personnel—the incidents stopped.
In the case of the bullets, I remember reading isolated reports some weeks back. It was only last week that the issue exploded in full force, this time with calls for the resignation of Manila International Airport Authority general manager Jose Angel Honrado, who is holding on defiantly, declaring that he never backs down from a good fight.
Well, Honrado will have to brace himself for a tough fight because he has picked formidable adversaries: OFWs. On their own, they have begun to boycott the services of airport porters, and to have their checked-in luggage wrapped in plastic, to prevent tampering.
The problem here is not just a matter of OFWs believing in magic bullets, but of crooks and swindlers who see the overseas Filipino workers as relatively affluent prey with their wealth in the form of golden bullets in bags… and in magic boxes, also known as balikbayan boxes. Just a few months ago, the new customs commissioner, Alberto Lina, got into trouble when he required the inspection of incoming balikbayan boxes for purposes of taxation because he believed that these were being used to smuggle in goods.
The OFW community reacted, strongly and firmly, protesting and threatening to stop sending the boxes which are mainly gifts for their families and friends. (I have no doubt some of the magical balikbayan boxes’ contents end up being sold, but our government’s tax collectors should really choose their battles and go after the big-time tax evaders.)
One, two, three
Reading about the tanim-bala scam reminded me of another scam many years ago, where travelers leaving Manila’s airport (there was only one then) developed a phobia for the bag scanners, which had become magical “wan-tu-tri” boxes. You passed your wallet or bag through the scanner and—one, two, three, like a magician’s rabbit—the wallet would disappear.
As with the amulets, a lower-tech version of the scam already existed back then, consisting of men going around and preying mainly on domestic helpers, telling them they had a magic box and that if you put in some money, it would multiply many times over, somewhat like the story of the few loaves of bread and fish that Jesus multiplied to serve an overflowing crowd.
The poor domestic helpers would put their money in the magic boxes and the con artists would leave, claiming they needed to perform some incantations to get the money to multiply. They never came back, and the slang expression “wan-tu-tri” was coined, to mean being victimized not just by magic boxes but by any kind of swindling.
Old magical beliefs and practices have a way of being resurrected, sometimes even spurred by new technologies. The airport scanners, when first introduced, did make many people suspicious even before the “wan-tu-tri” scams erupted, which then led to comments like “See, I told you, those scanners can’t be trusted,” almost as if the scanners, like some hungry supernatural being (a purple halimaw, maybe?) was gobbling up wallets, handbags and valuables.
I have to confess that some years back, when my hyper son was about to put his hand in the airport scanner, I told him in a deadpan voice, “Careful, now, some Thing inside is going to nibble on your fingers.” (If I had said a monster would gobble up his hand he’d probably end up offering not just his hand but his arm as well. Finger-nibbling, with visions of the piranha, sounded more ominous.)
And so the airport sagas unfold, modern and high-tech edifices producing stories still tinged with magical beliefs and scenes of boxes and dark caverns, populated by monsters preying on the innocent.
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