MANILA - Transportation Secretary Joseph Emilio "Jun" Abaya on Wednesday said reports of "tanim bala" or bullet-planting cases in the country's airports have been blown out of proportion since only a small number of passengers leaving the Philippines have been caught carrying bullets.
In a press conference, Abaya said the Philippine government has started investigating since Day 1 reports of the alleged "tanim bala" scam, involving the planting of bullets in the luggage of outgoing passengers.
How does the 'tanim-bala' scam work?
He said airport authorities recorded 1,214 cases of passengers carrying bullets in 2012. He said the cases include empty bullets as souvenirs, necklaces, talismans and live ammunition.
He said the number increased to 2,184 in 2013 and dropped to 1,813 in 2014. As of October 2015, airport authorities have so far recorded 1,394 cases of passengers carrying bullets.
LIST: Passengers allegedly victimized by 'tanim-bala'
Abaya noted that there is a declining trend for passengers carrying bullets at the four terminals of the Ninoy Aquino International Airport: 977 in 2012, 2,035 in 2013, 1,510 in 2014, and about 1,212 so far this year.
The transportation secretary noted that the actual number of cases is only about 0.008 percent of the total number of passengers leaving the country every year.
"It appears that the cases have been blown out of proportion. Let us be mindful that when allegation cast aspersions on all, it is not far-fetched to think that some of those tasked with our security will suffer from lower morale. This will be a disservice to all," he said.
Passengers resort to countermeasures vs. 'tanim bala'
Abaya, however, admitted that a single case of a passenger wrongly charged, extorted upon and victimized by planting of bullets and unjustly charged in court is an injustice.
"It is not something that the government should ignore but...is a great concern for the state. The numbers don't spell it. A single case of injustice merits full government attention," he said.
He pointed out any official found guilty of involvement in the "tanim bala" scam will face the penalty of reclusion perpetua or a minimum of 40 years imprisonment.
He also said there is no evidence to establish that a syndicate is operating inside the NAIA.
"So far we have not established any facts to show any syndicate happening, planting but again we assure them that any evidence, any personnel involved we will throw the full books at them," he said.
The Cabinet official, who is facing a complaint
over the tanim bala modus, said the government has no intention of letting the incidents slide. "At stake is the safety and peace of mind of every Filipino," he said.
He said some passengers caught with bullets admitted that they were carrying live ammunition. One case involved a mother who put live ammunition in the bag of her daughter "because she believed it would serve as an amulet, a protection for her daughter when she leaves."
One Japanese national who had two bullets in his bag also admitted he got the bullets as souvenirs after visiting a firing range.
"He forgot to clear his belongings and entered the airport and he was apprehended for possession of a live ammunition," Abaya said.
Meanwhile, two airport screeners have also been relieved of their posts and are facing investigation in connection with the latest tanim bala incident.
Marie Paz Trias earlier told ABS-CBN's TV Patrol that she was told by two airport screeners that there was a bullet in her bag. Trias, who was accompanying her mother and grandmother to Singapore, said she told the airport screeners that she could prove she had no bullet in her bag
WATCH: Pangingikil umano ng airport personnel, isiniwalat ng 'tanim-bala' victim
For his part, Office for Transportation Security Administrator Roland Recomono said cases of passengers carrying bullets are not uncommon. He said as early as 2008, several Filipinos have been caught carrying ammunition inside the airport.
He said the passengers usually claim the bullets are used as talismans
. "Panakot daw nila sa aswang o sa barang," he said.
He said passengers who carry live bullets and not just empty bullet shells face charges for illegal possession of ammunition.
Abaya also encouraged lawmakers to look into the Comprehensive Law on Firearms and Ammunition amid calls that the penalty for passengers carrying single bullets is too harsh.
WATCH: MIAA responds to alarming 'tanim bala scam'