Ever since the first Wells Fargo stagecoach was divested of its valuable cargo by masked armed men on horses shooting up a storm, the image of the bank robber has held such public notoriety. Throughout the years, these thieves have brazenly helped themselves to vast amounts of money and treasure, leaving behind a trail of terror and destruction. For not only do they steal, but often in the process, they also kill and destroy.
In modern days, the depiction of criminals’ lives in films such as Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, or Bonnie and Clyde, or even Ocean’s band of bandits, may have encouraged more robbers to pursue this dubious career path. They come in groups now, no longer the bungling bunch of petty thieves. They are more organized now, with a cast of characters who know exactly what their roles are in this fast-paced action drama. They are also more equipped now, with getaway vehicles faster than most law enforcement cars and proudly carrying arms that spew awesome firepower.
It was against this backdrop of increasing criminal activity that the Joint Anti-Bank Robbery Action Committee (JABRAC) was formed in 2004. JABRAC is a collective effort between the Philippine National Police (PNP), Bankers Association of the Philippines (BAP), the Bank Security Management Association (BSMA) and other government agencies and private banking institutions. It was organized to address the growing threats of bank crimes, particularly bank robberies that were occurring in Metro Manila and other parts of the country. Building on the principle of unified response and integrated efforts among its members, JABRAC provides overall planning, coordination and monitoring to ensure the success of various operations.
Police Deputy Director General Jefferson P. Soriano, Deputy Chief PNP for Operations (DCO) and chairman of JABRAC, says: “I see the relationship between the PNP and the banking sector through JABRAC as very cordial and cooperative. It’s a vehicle whereby the security concerns of banks are discussed so that the PNP can react to these issues and can respond immediately.”
PSSupt. Leo Angelo D. Leuterio, Senior Executive Assistant of the DCO, comments: “Since JABRAC was organized, we recorded a 20% decrease in bank robbery occurrences. And even the security managers of banks whom we meet have acknowledged that.”
On the side of the private banks, Edwin Ermita, First Vice President and Security Director of RCBC and the current president of the BSMA, remarks: “There is closer coordination as to who will handle cases. It used to be that when an incident occurs, a Theft and Robbery unit would arrive. Then a mobile patrol may be passing by and they would also be involved, or a group from the CIDG. So we requested JABRAC to form a specific unit to handle bank crimes so that efforts are focused. And now that the unit is there, it works continuously even if there is no crime occurring. They continue to gather intelligence and monitor suspicious activities. They are now more proactive.”
Never has this proactive stance been more valuable than now, especially with the way criminals have been adapting to the proverbial long arm of the law. Their methods have evolved, getting more creative and sophisticated.
The robbers used to hit the bank premises, barging into the branches hooded and brandishing guns. The banks hardened these soft targets by installing more CCTVs, deploying more guards and other such measures. Unable to penetrate their old happy hunting grounds, the robbers started pouncing on those withdrawing from automated teller machines (ATMs). JABRAC clustered the banks and provided more police visibility in areas where ATMs may be found. The criminals did lie low for a while, but not before one frustrated robber carried off the entire ATM.
Next, they tried “after withdrawal” robbery. Riding in tandem on motorcycles, these criminals would usually pounce on a bank client who may have just withdrawn a sizable amount of money, just as he or she was leaving the bank. But with more police on the lookout for such perpetrators, and posters warning against such modus operandi placed in strategic street corners, they shifted to hijacking armored cars.
The banks reacted by strengthening and bullet-proofing their armored cars. Unable to penetrate steel and hard glass, the thieves zeroed in on the gap between the door of the bank and the door of the armored car. This is when the bags of money are being loaded or unloaded, a rather vulnerable point in the process. So, the banks beefed up this weak link in the chain, with guards ever on the alert for any suspicious movement while this procedure is going on.
Another more insidious plot is to penetrate some security agencies. They look for the guards who are bogged down with problems or are heavily in debt. With promises of cash, they lure them into joining their gang, or at the very least, giving them tips about the operations of the bank.
These days, they come in bands of at least 20. They have lookouts, they have back-ups, they have people watching the traffic, they use high powered firearms, they are prepared.
Cat and mouse
“It’s really a cat-and-mouse fight,” observes Soriano. “Sometimes, the criminals have more sophisticated gadgets than the ones we use. And they don’t have laws to implement, while we do. You see, we have to go through the process, we are a democratic country.”
“Maybe not a cat-and-mouse game in the sense that we are chasing them,” says Ermita. “But we try to be one or two steps ahead.”
Leuterio shares some of the methods and programs that JABRAC has established to combat these criminal elements. “We have been updating and putting up posters of people involved in such activities. We’ve also established the rewards system, and we have come up with principles of deployment and actual deployment, from both the PNP and security agencies of banks. We also have ICT projects involving inter-connectivity of alarm and camera systems. The presence of cameras can be a deterrent to crime, as well as an aid to our investigation.”
In the legislative arena, JABRAC is also trying to pass a bill in Congress. Called the Bank Protection Act, it seeks to make bank robbery or bank crimes a non-bailable offense. Ermita observes that since bank robbers can easily post bail at this time, they can just go in and out and be “recycled”. He explains: “In the U.S., as long as you have long arms and there are two to three perpetrators, that is already non-bailable. In other countries, like in Singapore, just bringing a gun is a non-bailable offense. But here in the Philippines, the criminals already come in bands of 20 to 40, using M-203 grenade launchers, shooting people, and yet it’s bailable. You can just imagine that they are stealing so much money, but how much is the bail? Let’s say it’s Php 50,000 per person. And maybe there are 10 robbers. So that equals to Php 500,000. But they had stolen Php 10 million. So that’s nothing to them. And there are even times when the perpetrators have been caught but even as they are still on the way to the precinct, their lawyers have already posted bail.”
Ermita also believes that bank crimes can be linked to terrorism, as the money stolen from the banks can be used to finance terrorist activities. On the other hand, the act of robbing a bank, especially with the use of firearms, is in itself an act of terrorism. Bank crimes can likewise be considered economic sabotage. In one month, billions are lost in the banking industry not only through robberies but also through fraud, theft, qualified theft, and credit card fraud.
Another project of JABRAC is the training of bank guards. In cooperation with the PNP, the Security Agency and Guard Supervision Division (SAGSD), Technical Education and Skills Development Authority (TESDA) and Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas (BSP), all guards to be posted in banks need to undergo training at a BSMA training school. Accredited by TESDA, SAGSD and BSP, this school specializes in training that is specific to the context of securing banks.
Why JABRAC succeeds
Despite the unrelenting challenges, JABRAC has achieved significant headway in securing the banking industry.
Leuterio attributes this success to several issues: “First, there is an improvement of strategies, which are tailor-fit to the needs of specific organizations. Second is target-hardening and motivation or compulsion for banks to really give keen attention to the way they manage their operations on a daily basis, like the movement of personnel, movement of money. Even the way they treat their customers and the way they procure human resources, these things are discussed in our meetings. And this has led us to improve our deployment and to understand bank operations. The banking sector now also has a better appreciation of how they can help the PNP to be more equipped to assist them.”
Soriano observes that there has been better information exchange between the PNP and the banks, which enables the PNP to respond better. “Before, we were just reactive. This time, we have a preemptive stance, even as we go on planning on how we can improve the role of both sectors for bank security.”
“On the part of BSMA, as much as possible, we want to be proactive,” Ermita concludes. “Even without incidents, we try to do something. We’re updating our system and lucky for me as a Security Director, our management gives value and priority to security, which in turn gives value to clients and employees.” •