Wednesday, July 18, 2012

The underground world of the 'Acetylene Gang'

Underneath Metro Manila’s varied, colorful, and crowded urban life is its opposite -- a network of sewers that look the same and provide shelter only to rats, cockroaches and the occasional burglar. In this underground world thrives a criminal operation as complex as the sewer system itself. It takes thieves skilled in tunneling techniques weeks of burrowing in the dark to reach vaults containing millions of pesos. Just last month, a pawnshop in Cubao, Quezon City reported a burglary. The vault had a clean hole created with an acetylene torch used by thieves who became two million pesos richer. When the authorities came, they saw a narrow hole in the floor. The hole led to a tight recently made tunnel that led to a sewer a few meters away. This is the relatively risk-free modus operandi of several syndicates the police call the ‘Acetylene Gang’, or the ‘Daga-Daga Gang’ or the ‘Tunnel Rats.’ According to the Anti-Organized Crime unit of the Philippine National Police, they were able to account for at least six groups with similar operations operation in the country. A recent I-Witness documentary, "Hukay-Hukay," shed light on a crime spree that is happening mostly in pitch-black darkness. Howie Severino explores the sewers where the 'acetylene gang' conducted their operations Professional miners from northern Luzon are usually hired to do the digging. Often they begin in an apartment near the targeted pawnshop rented by a woman accomplice who claims to the owner that she is setting up a business. Then the men move in and begin digging through its floor. According to the authorities, the burglars determine the exact position of the vaults with a method called "dead reckoning," or measuring their location and destination based on established, pre-measured distances. They can pretend to be a pawnshop's customers and make those measurements with their naked eyes while casing the pawnshop's interior. In January this year, a CCTV camera filmed a break-in through the floor of a pawnshop in Imus, Cavite, putting a masked face on the operation. The video led to the arrest of three men in a rented apartment just around the corner, all of them purportedly from Baguio. All along the walls were sacks of earth, the product of their determined digging. They hardly left the apartment and apparently didn't arouse the suspicion of their neighbors. Caught in an apartment with a hole that led to the pawnshop, the suspects seemed to face certain conviction. But they barely spent a week in jail before being bailed out by their lawyer for a measly P12,000 each, courtesy of a sympathetic judge. The names and addresses they gave to the Imus police were found to be false. In the next municipality, one of the pawnshop's managers saw the suspects' photos -- they had been previously arrested there after a similar tunneling break-in, jumped bail, and were able to dig into the Imus pawnshop just a few kilometers away. After their latest failed caper, they are at large once again, probably digging in the dark, and confident that getting arrested will not end their lucrative, lonely careers spent in sewers and tunnels.—Alyx Arumpac/PF/HGS, GMA News