Foreigners beware in the Philippines
By Joel D Adriano
MANILA - A spate of violent crimes against foreigners threatens to undermine the Philippine government's drive to lure more foreign investors, tourists and retirees. Previously, only rebel-infested areas on the southern island of Mindanao were considered high-risk, but recent assaults on foreigners have been launched in the capital Manila and other places popular with international tourists.
On July 17, US expatriate Frederick Boucher and his family were attacked by five armed men shortly after they arrived at the capital's Ninoy Aquino International Airport.
They were held at gunpoint and their vehicle was forcibly stolen after the suspects repeatedly bumped into the rear of their vehicle. Police investigators believe they were likely marked by "spotters" situated at the airport working on behalf of criminal gangs.
Other high-profile carjacking cases in July included assaults against a popular local actor, a former Philippine ambassador and a Japanese business executive from Toshiba Philippines. Police statistics indicate an average of 130 auto thefts in Metro Manila each month, often targeting sports utility and other luxury vehicles.
The Philippine National Police (PNP) have stepped up their anti-carjacking campaign, leading to the arrest of several suspects and the killing of two notorious alleged gang leaders. Nonetheless, the crime wave has prompted the US Overseas Advisory Security Council to warn its nationals about the risks of traveling through the international airport.
Rising violence against foreigners represents the latest mark on the Philippines spotty image as a friendly destination for foreign investment and travel, adding to the burdens of outmoded infrastructure and endemic corruption. The police have responded by burnishing their crime statistics, giving the impression that crime is on the wane rather than rise. That's been accomplished through a statistical loophole that allows crimes committed at the barangay level, the country's smallest governmental units, not to be included on the national crime ledger.
Many crimes, including kidnapping-for-ransom, are not reported due to widespread distrust of authorities who are often behind the crimes and possible reprisals. Still, Philippine officials bristle at the frequent depiction of the Philippines as a dangerous place for tourists and investors. Officials can't believe that despite this year's bloody protests and suppression in Thailand - including the shooting deaths of two foreign journalists - Bangkok remains a favorite destination for global travelers and is still widely viewed as a safer than Manila.
In part, that's because foreigners are being singled out by Filipino gangs and syndicates.
For instance, on July 22, retired US Air Force Sergeant Albert Mitchell, his wife and their three housemaids were killed in a robbery in their home in Angeles City, outside of the national capital. The suspect, Mark Dizon, was arrested on July 27. He has since been accused in the murder and robbery of two other foreigners: 60-year-old South African national Geoffrey Allan Bennun and 51-year-old Briton James Bolton Porter and their respective live-in partners.
Foreign kidnappings are also on the rise. On April 4, Swiss businessman Carl Reith was kidnapped from his beach home in Zamboanga on Mindanao island. He was rescued by the police two months later in a raid that killed one of the suspects. On April 11, Salvacion Gorenio, an American national, was kidnapped near her house in Cavite, a province just outside Metro Manila. After nearly a month in captivity she was rescued by the police in an operation that killed all three suspects. In July, Japanese national Amir Katayama Mamaito, a treasure hunter who operated a local pharmacy, was kidnapped in southern Sulu province. He is still being held at an unknown location.
According to Pete Troillo, director of business intelligence at Pacific Strategies and Assessments Inc, a risk consulting firm, at least 33 foreigners were kidnapped in the Philippines last year, mostly Indian nationals. Indians are considered prime targets because many of them are engaged in small-time informal lending and hence often carry large amounts of cash.
Chinese, Korean and American nationals, all of whom are believed capable of paying high ransoms, have also been frequently targeted, Troillo said. Including local victims, 139 people were kidnapped in the Philippines last year, up slightly from the 135 snatched in 2008.Fudging the figures
Officials are grappling to explain the attacks. Many crimes in the Philippines are linked to the country's high poverty rate. As much as one-third of the population live in poverty, according to some estimates. Economic desperation has recently been aggravated by the global economic recession and the severe flooding in Manila and surrounding areas last year.
That's compounded by a lack of effective law enforcement. Police are often suspected of being involved in many crimes in the Philippines, especially kidnappings for ransom. A number of suspects caught in past operations against kidnapping rings were either active or former policemen.
Some sociologists attribute the crime to widely held Filipino perceptions that most foreigners, especially Caucasians, are rich. This notion is perpetuated by the media in movies and TV shows. They often view Filipinos with relatives in the US or abroad as comparatively better off.
For instance, on July 19 four gunmen tailed and rammed the vehicle of a wealthy local family returning from a vacation in the US. When they stopped to inspect the damage, assailants held the family at gunpoint and shot businessman Jorge Bernas, a distant relative of former president Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, before stealing their van.
To be sure, some foreigners have been at the wrong place at the wrong time. Briton Charles McKerchar, 69, was recently injured during a failed assassination attempt on Sulu Governor Sakur Tan at the Zamboanga City's airport on August 5. McKerchar, who is married to a Filipino, was at the airport to retrieve an acquaintance. He is now in a serious but stable condition.
Nor are all foreigners resident in the Philippines cowering in fear. James Musslewhite, an American expat from Houston who now lives in Mindanao and writes a blog about the Philippines, thinks that despite the recent negative news many foreigners living in the Philippines still believe its safer in Manila than in most US urban areas. "I feel safer walking in many streets in the Philippines than in the US," he said.
Police officials suggest that most of the violence against foreigners is motivated by a get-rich-quick mentality shared by many criminal gangs and syndicates. In self-defense, the PNP claims that nearly all of the high-profile crimes recently reported in the media have been solved – though the police frequently tally a crime as solved just by identifying a suspect.
They often like to boast that they have a higher crime solution rate than their counterparts in the US and Japan. Last year the PNP claimed an 88% crime solution efficiency rate, compared to just 32% in the US and 31% in Japan. They've also reported a 57% drop in homicides and murders in the first half of this year, curiously at a time the media is awash with violent crime stories.
Raul Bacalzo, director for police investigation and detection management, says the high crime solution rate may be attributed to some police chiefs ''under-reporting'' the number of crimes in their region to make it appear that ''his area of responsibility is peaceful and crime incidents are manageable''. A new crime recording methodology implemented earlier this year is designed to correct the dysfunction in police procedures for processing crime and bring them on par with international standards.
According to PNP director general Jesus Verzosa, the supposed drop in recent crime statistics was due mainly to a five-month gun ban aimed at reducing political violence ahead of the May 10 general elections. Some 3,000 people were arrested, including 200 government employees, during the gun ban period, which ran from January 10 to June 9.
Because of the supposed dramatic decline in crime during the gun ban period, the PNP is now proposing a permanent gun ban. President Benigno Aquino, a gun enthusiast who target shoots as a hobby, has dismissed the idea out of hand, claiming that gun-related incidents represent a small percentage of the total crime statistics.
Citing police statements that there were more unlicensed than licensed firearms across the county, Aquino believes that a gun ban would only affect those who are abiding by gun registration laws. Meanwhile, foreigners will weigh more cautiously whether to commit their capital or spend their holidays in a country where they are increasingly the target of heavily armed robbery, car-jacking and kidnapping gangs and syndicates.
Joel D Adriano is an independent consultant and award-winning freelance journalist. He was a sub-editor for the business section of The Manila Times and writes for ASEAN BizTimes, Safe Democracy and People's Tonight.
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