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Rogue miners hunting for gold dig tunnel under pawnshops

/ 04:08 AM July 08, 2011

Some highland miners have shifted their search for gold from the mountains to the lowlands, discovering pawnshops as a rich source of precious metals and stones.

Instead of breaking windows or crawling on ceilings, they tunnel their way quietly into their targets, often at night, police say.

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More than that, they would send out scouts to case a target and he would count his footsteps along the way to make sure the tunnel they would dig was long enough.

Pawnshop owners have expressed alarm over the increasing number of robberies involving miners who tunnel their way into their shops.

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The illegal operations are well-funded, the thieves emboldened by the backing of a syndicate waiting to bail them out and put them back to work on another “mining project,” according to investigators.

The chief of the National Bureau of Investigation Anti-Organized Crime Division (NBI-AOCD), Rogelio Mamauag, told the Inquirer the robbery gangs reckoned pawnshops were easier to hit compared to banks.

“This is the effect of the campaign against bank robberies,” Mamauag said. “Security in banks have tightened. This is why they (the robbers) shifted to what they perceive are softer targets.”

“Most of them (miners-turned-robbers) think, why dig in the mountains where gold is uncertain, when they can dig into the pawnshops, where they would certainly find gold?”

From north to south

Mamauag said estimates of the number of pawnshops throughout the Philippines stood at more than 15,000. “Imagine how many they could victimize,” he said.

As of Dec. 31, 2010, there were 15,596 pawnshops nationwide registered with the Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas.

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The gangs preying on pawnshops, Mamauag said, have worked their way down the archipelago through the years, starting out from northern Luzon and reaching to Mindanao in the south.

‘Acetylene gang’

Mamauag said the tunneling robbers were evolutions of the “acetylene gang,” so named because they use acetylene torches to bore through steel vaults.

Previously, the gangs would destroy a wall or a ceiling to get to the vault. Now, their permutations literally go underground and burrow their way through from a rented space near their target—either a bank or a pawnshop—or through existing drainage systems.

Their operation is harder to detect because the sounds of digging are muffled by the ground above them and their movements are easier to conceal, Mamauag said.

Able-bodied men

The gang has tapped miners, mostly from mining towns in northern Luzon, who are able-bodied and can endure the rigors of tunneling, he said.

“They use miners from Baguio. That is where they originated,” Mamauag said. “They use the heavy kind of crowbars and acetylene torches. Once inside (the pawnshops) after tunneling, they can either cut or forcibly open heavy vaults using their equipment.”

He said pawnshop robbers showed “proficiency in digging.”

“If you could imagine miners, they could carve out hard rock using crowbars. If there is anyone who can do that, a miner could,” he said.

Counting the steps

“Most of the members of the group are locals in a single area where mining is their primary means of livelihood,” Mamauag said. “It (robbery) sometimes becomes a town affair where the miners who want to take part in a heist ask their townmates if they want to join in.”

A point man then picks up the willing miners and brings them to the target area.

The gang starts by sending scouts to get information from locals in a certain area and searches for targets before sending one of the miners to pose as a client of the pawnshop, Mamauag said.

“By simply counting his steps, the miner is able to measure how far he and his cohorts must dig,” he said.

Choice cut

Mamauag said the gangs usually picked “choice cut” targets, or those in areas where the ground was soft and easy to burrow into.

He said robbery gangs “sometimes merge, borrowing people from other groups.”

The rising trend of gangs employing this mode of operation has caught the attention of the Joint Anti-Bank Robbery Council (Jabrac) under the Philippine National Police Directorate for Operations.

Based on PNP records, pawnshop robberies nationwide surged almost 100 percent in the first six months of this year compared to the first six months of 2010. Fifteen heists were reported from January to June this year, against eight recorded over the same period last year. (See related story on this page.)

According to a PNP report, the robbers used acetylene torches to open the pawnshop vault and gain entry through the floor by tunneling from a nearby rented apartment, a drainage system or river bank.

Caught in the act

In May, Interior Secretary Jesse Robredo warned local officials against the operations of tunneling robbers after the Chamber of Pawnbrokers of the Philippines Inc. sought government help in curbing the incidents.

The warning may have helped in the arrest on June 3 of two miners: Allen Langtiwan, of Baguio City, and Cesar Pandayan, of Isabela province. They were nabbed while allegedly burrowing through to the Tambunting Pawnshop in Barangay San Juan, Taytay, Rizal province.

Police said the two were caught inside the tunnel they had dug after a tricycle driver told barangay officials about seeing several men carrying digging tools headed toward the rear of the pawnshop.

Three other supposed cohorts who served as lookouts escaped.

Allegedly found inside the tunnel with the two miners were an acetylene torch, hydraulic jacks, an oxygen tank and other tools. Police said they also seized two hand grenades.

Bailable offense

Nestor Pinlac, a counsel for the Tambunting pawnshop chain, told the Inquirer that while pawnshops were upgrading their security systems to avoid becoming “soft targets” for robbers, the burglars were able to keep up by modifying their operations.

He lamented that the illegal operation was becoming a lucrative business for criminals, saying the participation of a financier gave that impression.

“These (robberies) are apparently well-funded,” Pinlac said. “The tunneling robbers use new gadgets that they simply leave behind should their operations fail. They (the robbers) are picked up and brought to the target area where the financier spends for their lodgings until they pull the heist. Successful or not, they leave everything behind to evade arrest.”

What is alarming, he said, is that even if the robbers are caught, the crime is bailable, creating a vicious cycle.

“They stage the robbery, they are arrested, they post bail, transfer to a different area and stage another robbery.”

Banding together

For attempted robbery, the usual bail is P24,000. The recommended bail for a consummated crime is at least P100,000.

“Pawnshop owners are getting together to curb or completely stop these robberies,” Pinlac said, stressing that pawnshop roberry is detrimental to the trade, which thrives on the trust of clients who pawn their jewelry and expect to retrieve it later.

One possible solution is to place pawnshops under a special category where robbing these would bring stiffer penalties.

Recently, Misamis Occidental Rep. Loreto Leo Ocampos filed a bill seeking to deny bail to bank robbery suspects and imposing a life sentence on those convicted of the crime.

In coming up with House Bill No. 3914, Ocampos described bank robberies as acts of “economic sabotage” that pose a threat to the stability of the banking institutions.

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TAGS: acetylene gang, miners, Misamis Occidental Rep. Loreto Leo Ocampos, pawnshops, robbery, tunnel
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