Thursday, May 22, 2008

Unsafe in banks

It was one for Truman Capote. The bank robbery in Laguna last Friday morning that killed 10 was one for the books. Nothing like that had ever happened in this country. I am not talking about the swiftness, the amount of money taken or the daring. I am talking about the naked cruelty of those who planned and carried it out.

They didn’t just take the money and run. They made sure no one saw or recognized their faces and lived to tell story. They made the bank employees lie face down on the floor and fired at them one by one, execution style. They had planned it that way. Who were they? What kind of men were these?

One bishop compared them to animals. Unfair to animals! Animals are good creatures, true to their essence and have no evil human attributes.

Whenever I am in a bank waiting in line to do a transaction, a scenario always crosses my mind—a bank robbery unfolding before my eyes. And what do I do next, where do no crouch and how do I stay cool? Should I keep my eyes shut but my ears alert to the sounds and my nose keen to the scents? Should I play dead or feign a heart attack?

I am not the type who steps out into the world with thoughts of grim scenarios that would spoil my day but a journalist always has this nose for the tragic, the vulgar, the grotesque, and but of course, and why not, for the unusually beautiful and profound.

But on a clear day, things could turn awry and there you are in the crossfire or on someone’s crosshairs because you happened to be in a bank. One of the 10 victims in last Friday’s bank massacre was a messenger who was sent by his boss. All the rest were bank personnel.

A research statistics that I found in the Internet show that most bank robberies are staged on Friday mornings. This must have something to do with the cash stash. People deposit their earnings at the end of the week. Banks need cash to refill ATMs so people could withdraw during the weekend. And maybe bank people tend to be more relaxed. Friday is when they wear civvies.

There is no doubt that robberies are no longer the work of bank outsiders simply crashing in. There’s info from inside that gets out and used by robbers for their operation plan. An inside job—that is an angle investigators can no longer ignore.

If it is not the bank itself that is attacked, it is the bank client who has just withdrawn cash and is on the street and going back to the office or home with the payroll. Who alerts these criminals to pounce on their prey? It couldn’t be the bank teller or the security guard. There are other factors outside the bank’s control.

Cash in transit such as those in armored vehicles are another story. Traveling in broad daylight and well guarded, these vehicles attract attention and are less prone to attacks while they are on busy streets. But still, there had been attacks. The attackers didn’t just emerge from the bushes, they had done a lot of planning. They had information.

Cyber theft or phising is a different type of bank robbery and innocent lives are not put in jeopardy. Armed robbery still works if cold cash is what you’re after. Until banks do business on a totally cashless basis—which is unlikely—they will always be magnets for attack.

Technology can only work so far. While closed circuit TV (CCTV) cameras train their lenses on the outside, who is minding what’s going on inside? How much do bank personnel know that could be leaked out? Bank and security personnel would be naïve to think that the attack simply comes from outside, that it does not start from inside. The timing, the moves, the plan—these are all based on prior information and communication on the bank’s lay-out, the surveillance technology, the bank personnel on duty, who does what.

I pity the security guards who stand outside the bank entrance. In a lightning attack, they are the first to fall. Walang kalaban-laban, no fighting chance whatsoever. Why put them there if they will only die in the first volley of fire? They should be like sentries, like what the amazing meerkat do.

Do we have a maculation system (I don’t know how this works) that ejects dyes on stolen bills and makes the bills traceable and unusable? What about a tracking device like the one in the movie “No Country for Old Men”? These robbers are ordinary lay people like you and me but they are a step ahead of their victims and the law enforcers who are supposed to be knowledgeable and high-tech. Armored cars, time-delay lock systems, CCTVs, alarm systems, security guards. The smart robbers have all these figured out.

Last Friday’s assault was not a simple stick-up on one’s teller’s booth by some rag-tag amateurs. There was thorough planning involved. The armed men must have known or made sure that the CCTV and the alarm system were not working. They broke in and were inside before the bank opened. And they made sure they killed all before they escaped with the loot. That is the tragic part.

They had information. Someone gave them information.

But as one police official said, there is no perfect crime. And those men better realize that someone might have been eavesdropping while they were planning the crime. Someone. Someone has information.

Schools awash in enrolment cash should be on guard too. Last weekend, armed robbers broke into St. Scholastica’s Academy in Marikina, tied up the guards and axed the door to the business office. No one was hurt but the robbers ran away with some P300,000 and a computer.