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By Troy Medina, Online Managing Editor

By the numbers: Riding in tandem

Posted on August 20, 2014

MOTORCYCLISTS riding in tandem are having a moment right now, the object of fear and regulatory overreaction. Quezon City is considering making riders wear vests with registration numbers. Mandaluyong flags them down if they’re two men riding together. Dagupan City, Cotabato City, and Batac, Ilocos Norte already prohibit them from wearing helmets for easier identification; a Zamboanga congressman is thinking of making the helmet ban the law of the land, replacing the current law of the land, which requires helmets. And all throughout the country, police stop riders of all kinds at checkpoints, on the pretext of checking for unregistered or smuggled machines, in the hopes of catching, by sheer luck, suspects wanted for worse crimes.

How we got to this point is a tangled story involving globalization, traffic congestion, gun proliferation, smuggling, populist legislators, and a pronounced tendency by the police to sensationalize the Modus Operandi of their targets to the point where we see potential criminals lurking in every corner. But anything this complicated is probably worth examining in fine detail.

To start with the basics. Motorcycle ownership has exploded in recent years, passing the 4 million mark (including tricycles) in 2012, according to registration statistics compiled by the Land Transportation Office. But the real news is in the registration levels for new motorcycles -- over 1 million a year in the three years to 2013. An astonishing one-fourth of registered motorcycles are new, even as the overall motorcycle population remains stable. (By way of contrast, new cars represent about a tenth of the total car population.) You can interpret the motorcycle registration statistics any way you like -- motorcycles destroyed in accidents, lost by their original owners to theft, rendered useless by mechanical breakdown, or simply kept unregistered beyond the first year. Whatever the case, two things are undeniable -- first, there is at any given time a significant population of unregistered motorcycles floating about; and second, people keep buying and registering motorcycles in large numbers every year.

We can blame the explosive growth of the motorcycle population on China, which produces about 9 million units a year. The formal statistics on Chinese motorcycles present only a partial view of reality -- China officially exported only 40,000 units to the Philippines in 2013. Nevertheless, the growth trends are instructive: in 2004, official exports were just over 12,000 units, which means Chinese exports to the Philippines more than tripled in that period. The real totals are of course much larger. One signal that motorcycles are swamping the Philippines is the number of police checkpoints set up specifically for motorcycle riders in parts of northern Luzon, where smuggling is thought to be rampant. Another is the sales figures reported by the mainstream motorcycle companies, dominated by the leading Japanese brands. The Motorcycle Development Program Participants Association claimed sales of just over 700,000 units in 2012 -- a year when new LTO registrations were comfortably over 1 million.

Another essential part of the picture is the ready availability of firearms. A 2013 study, “Gun Proliferation and Violence,” conducted by Ateneo de Manila’s Political Science department but carrying the imprint of the United Nations Development Programme, cites a Philippine National Police estimate for 2009 of 1.1 million loose firearms. The study also cites data from 2004-2009 showing that about 99% of all firearms used in crimes are unregistered. It identified four main sources of illegal weapons - underground gunsmiths, such as those in Danao City; smuggling and gunrunning in conflict areas; leakage of arms from law enforcement agencies and the military; and ‘improvised weapons’ favored by street gangs.

A third factor is the unique suitability of crowded cities for committing motorcycle crimes. Potential victims are all over the place, while congested roads make pursuit difficult and escape more likely. The signature motorcycle crime of assassination-in-traffic seems tailor-made for a place like Manila, where even the big shots - at least the ones who can’t afford helicopters or bulletproof cars -- have to travel predictable routes and spend long amounts of time standing still at crowded intersections.

Now that we’ve established the existing conditions that make motorcycle crime possible, it’s time to try to get our heads around the magnitude of this alleged motorcycle crime wave. The most-quoted statistic is 3,000 crimes in Metro Manila alone in 2013 attributed to two-wheel riders. While that sounds alarming, this indicator isn’t actually all that useful, because it tells us nothing about the most feared variety of motorcycle criminal -- the back-seat gunman. To put that statistic in its proper context, we need to make a few assumptions.

The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime estimated the Philippine national homicide rate at between 5.4 and 7.5 per 100,000 in the last five years of the previous decade, based on sources from the criminal justice system. (Public health sources consistently put the homicide rate at around twice those levels). A rate of 5.4 per 100,000 persons for Metro Manila, population 12 million, suggests an overall homicide total of 648. Not all of those were committed by motorcycle gunmen, of course, but the numbers suggest that we are looking at deaths caused by motorcycle gunmen of a few dozen to a few hundred a year. While every senseless death is to be regretted, the total lives lost to motorcycle assassins is clearly far less impressive than the figure of “3,000 crimes” being passed around so uncritically.

If homicides form a small proportion of motorcycle-aided crimes, should we care about the petty crimes? A person losing a handbag or a smartphone to a passing rider will definitely feel the pain of monetary loss, not to mention the incalculable trauma of being victimized, but the truth is that the risk of losing valuable possessions is present anywhere, anytime. From the point of view of the motorcycle criminal, small items like these represent a laughably low rate of return for the risks, which include imprisonment, plus the seizure of the motorcycle, a P20,000 to P50,000 investment. It might be small comfort to the victims, but criminals who use motorcycles for petty theft clearly aren’t all that smart, and are likely to be weeded out in time from the general population by the simple workings of evolution.

Murder, on the other hand, represents a rewarding use of their time and their capital equipment. According to Ramon Tulfo, who writes about crime for the Philippine Daily Inquirer, professional gunmen can earn hundreds of thousands of pesos for a hit. That’s an attractive payday for any assassin in this poverty-stricken country, but perhaps even more so for poorly-paid policemen or soldiers, who come packaged with free firearms and combat training. Bank robberies committed with so-called “military precision” have been a staple of tabloid crime stories for years, quite possibly because many of those involved were, in fact, trained by the uniformed services. From that premise it isn’t much of a stretch to conclude that policemen and soldiers who moonlight in crime have discovered the growth industry of motorcycle assassination.

Whoever is behind all this, it is difficult to imagine any other type of major crime better suited to frustrate all the standard methods of detection and arrest. Police sketches aren’t an option when the perpetrators are wearing helmets; tiny license plates mean eyewitnesses can’t write down numbers that might provide initial leads (a problem made even worse by the backlog in license plate production, not to mention the proliferation of unregistered motorcycles); checkpoints don’t work when the suspects have lots of side streets to duck into. And the small numbers of people involved -- the paymaster, the driver and the gunman -- mean information is less likely to leak, rendering police informants useless.

Perhaps it is this suspicion that motorcycle criminals have an insurmountable advantage over them that worries the authorities so much. Things have reached the point where the PNP has gone to great lengths to publicize the “riding in tandem” menace, which it typically resorts to when it confronts a problem it can’t immediately solve. And the police do have a history of feeding the Modus Operandi of the most notorious criminals to reporters on the beat. This is why why we know of the existence of the so-called “akyat-bahay” gang, the “laglag-barya” gang, the “salisi” gang, and so on. Never mind that these were MOs that could be carried out by anyone, not just any particular “gang” of criminals. In the public mind, there were mythic “gangs” on the prowl, which perhaps helped increase public vigilance, but also intensified the climate of fear. This isn’t even the first time the police have defined a threat to public safety by the criminals’ preferred means of transport; at some point in the distant past (i.e. the 1970s) there was a “Celeste” gang, because the members were said to be driving around the city in Mitsubishi Celeste sedans.

It’s enough to make you sentimental for days gone by, when our criminals were a better sort of people who could still afford cars, going about their business unimpeded by road congestion.