The fixing business at LTO

Mara Cepeda, Julienne Joven, Gerard Lim, Faith Musni, Rolf Ponce*
To get a 'guaranteed legal license' at the LTO, all you need is a 3R photo and P15,000. An 'illegal' one costs P2,500.

MANILA, Philippines – The Skyway accident that killed at least 18 people on Dec. 16, 2013, has resurrected questions about how many drivers on Metro Manila’s streets actually deserve their licenses.

The driver of a Don Mariano bus, according to witnesses, was speeding and going beyond the 80-kph speed limit for buses on the Skyway. The driver was reported to have lost control of the south-bound bus, which zig-zagged before hitting the railings and falling off the elevated Skyway. (READ: Bus plunges off Skyway, lands on van)

In 2011, according to latest statistics from the National Statistical Coordination Board, there was an average of 211 vehicular accidents per day in Metro Manila. In 2012, Transportation and Comunications Assistant Secretary Dante Lantin said 79% of road crashes were caused by driver error.

An investigation into the process of obtaining licenses from the Land Transportation Office (LTO) reveals that corruption and irregularities persist. In the first half of 2013, Metro Manila Development Authority statistics show that in the metro alone, 867 drivers have been caught driving with fake licenses.

This has undoubtedly contributed to the proliferation of untrained and uneducated drivers on Metro Manila’s streets. 

Shortcuts

On a typical day at the LTO main office on East Avenue in Quezon City, fixers would ask random passers-by, “Lisensya po? (You need a license?)” If an applicant readily holds out out his requirements, he can expect a swarm of fixers to crowd him.

Once an applicant has chosen a fixer, negotiations promptly begin. The applicant may opt to either have a fixer handle everything or just specific parts of the licensing process. Either way, there are corresponding prices.

Jenna Aquino,* a former janitress at LTO East Avenue now working as a fixer, said that payments for each fixer vary. She and her group of fixers charge P700 for a student permit, P2,500 for a non-professional driver’s license, and P3,500 for a professional driver’s license. Clients are free to haggle.

According to the LTO’s official website, an aspiring driver needs a student permit first before he or she can obtain either a non-professional or a professional driver’s license. Once the applicant’s student permit lapses, he or she can apply for a driver’s license. The applicant needs to meet specific criteria, accomplish several forms, and pass a written and practical driving examination before applying for a non-professional or professional driver’s license. The applicant needs to pay several fees as well.

The application process for a driver’s license takes approximately 3-4 hours. But as former LTO fixer Nestor Reyes* said, a fixer can easily reduce the time to about 90 or even 60 minutes only.

For Aquino and her group of fixers, a photocopy shop along East Avenue serves as their “office” or base. After she and a potential client agree on a price, she accompanies the applicant inside the LTO branch.

Escorted by a fixer, the applicant is able to skirt the lines and is saved from having to troop to the different stations, as the fixer does that instead. Because the fixer knows who to approach and has made prior arrangements, there is assurance the applicant’s documents will be processed first.

For the written examination, Aquino said they also provide their clients a reviewer like the one given to applicants in the lecture room of the LTO branch. Sometimes fixers shade the written examination form with a pencil and let their clients shade over the answers with a ballpen. In other instances, the fixer just hands to the applicant exam sheets with marked correct answers. In other words, they facilitate cheating.

As for the practical driving examination, Aquino said the LTO examiner himself operates the steering wheel for the license applicant so that he or she is sure to pass.

According to Reyes, the other fixer, applicants may also opt not to undergo both the written and practical tests and just let the fixer take the examinations for themselves – it really depends on the agreement between the fixer and his client. According to Reyes, the LTO examiners are aware who among the test takers are fixers.

He added that licenses obtained this way are guaranteed to be “legal.”

APPLICATION PROCESS. There is the legal way and the illegal way. File photo from LTO
High price

Even without having to make a personal appearance at the LTO, an applicant can have a “guaranteed legal license.”

54-year-old Reyes explained, “Kung kukuha ka ng legal [na lisensya], isang 3R na picture lang ang ibibigay mo plus P15,000.” (If you want to get a legal license, you only need to provide a 3R picture plus 15,000).

He said that the price is pegged that high because aside from assurance a license will be original through and through, documents are processed in an LTO provincial branch.

According to Reyes, LTO branches outside Metro Manila – like the one in Tuguegarao City in Cagayan – allow this kind of transaction. It’s easier to cheat there than in the metro.

Aquino’s group of fixers, meanwhile, charges P12,000 for the same arrangement.

If an applicant needs a license without a student permit, fixers can offer special services. The same applies to those who want to to get a license but who refuse to go to the LTO.

The applicant just needs to give all the necessary documents to the fixer who processes everything. After a day, the applicant can have a ready license that can be claimed, depending on agreements made with the fixer. As expected, the higher the amount paid, the “more legal” the license is.

If an applicant opts for non-appearance and coughs up only P2,500, Reyes said the license he gets will still be “legally made” by the LTO, meaning, the hologram will still appear and the control numbers at the back will still be embossed. This is made possible with the connivance of LTO employees who have access to the control numbers and the holograms.

‘Legal’ but fake

These licenses, however, are not recorded in the LTO’s files because they are printed without going through due process.

Should an applicant decide to check with the LTO’s Management Information Division if he is really registered, he won’t be in the records. His license is only physically legal, but is fake in the eyes of the law.

Reyes further said, “Galing sa LTO ’yung materials. Halimbawa ako, may contact ako sa licensing [division], sasabihin ko, ‘Bigyan mo ko ng materials. Ito ang P1,000.” Bibigyan niya ko.” (The raw materials come from the LTO. For example, I would approach my contact from the LTO’s licensing division and say, “Give me materials for a driver’s license. Here’s P1,000.” And he gives them to me.)

“Tapos, [fixers] na ang gagawa sa labas. Kung ano ’yung computer ng LTO, ’yun din ang computer nila. Parehas na parehas,” Reyes added. (The fixers will then manufacture the licenses outside the LTO branch. They have the same computer as the one owned by the agency. Exactly the same.)

However, he said he no longer knows where this computer is located or how the fixers currently operating along East Avenue were able to acquire it.

Aquino added, “Kung hindi ka na pinapasok ng fixer sa LTO, peke na [‘yung lisensya].” (If the fixer said you no longer need to go with him or her inside the LTO branch, the license you’ll get will be fake.)

Reyes calls this the “legal na ilegal” way of obtaining licenses.

“Ang mga gumagamit lang noon, karamihan, mga grupo ng mga sindikato,” he said. (The people who usually get licenses this way include members of syndicate groups.)

If a driver is caught without an LTO-registered license, he will be asked to pay a fine of P1,500 and will be issued a violation ticket. Moreover, if his license is discovered to be fake, he will have to pay P2,000. The driver will also be disqualified from securing a real license for two years.

The apprehended driver may find his license revoked because he technically should not own one. Also, if the owner decides to undergo other legal processes with different government offices using the said license, he may face imprisonment when these government officials do not find his name in the list of licensed drivers.

LTO Licensing Section assistant chief Irene Mortel said a legitimate license is proof that a person is a legitimate driver. This means the person went through the screening processes, that he or she submitted valid documents, took the examinations, and is thus a competent driver.

A person with a fake license cannot claim to be qualified to drive.

Money goes to LTO employees

Whatever amount is paid by an applicant already covers the application and card fees required by the LTO. The applicant must make sure, however, that only the required LTO fees are given to the fixer at the start.

“May mga fixer na hihingi agad ng pera. ‘Wag kang papayag. Bigyan mo muna ’yung kailangan [lang] niya,” Reyes cautioned. (There would be fixers who will already ask you for the full payment. Don’t agree to that. Give him only what he needs for your application first.)

There’s a bigger tendency for the fixer to run away with the applicant’s money, he explained, if the full payment is given right away. Only after receiving his permit or license, should the fixer be paid in full.

But where does the money go?

“Sa [mga fixers], mga P200 or P300, ganyan lang [’yung nakukuha nila],” he said. (The fixers only get P200 to P300.)

According to him, the rest of the money is paid to LTO employees who know about and allow the fixing scheme.

Aquino said they have “friends” inside the LTO who let them bypass the procedures.

Like a tip box

Lawyer Roberto Valera, assistant chief of the LTO intelligence and investigation division (IID) and member of the LTO committee on anti-fixing, corroborated the fixing scheme Reyes and Aquino described. He said many of the fixers operating in the agency require assistance from an employee working within the system.

According to him, the LTO offices which fixers have penetrated are the ones that provide frontline services. These are adjudication, licensing, and the registration offices.

Reyes said the exchange of money between fixers and the LTO employees in the 3 divisions are made during clandestine meetings held outside the branch either during lunch break or outside office hours. He said he does not know how much each employee receives, however.

“Parang tip box ’yan sa restawran… Iniipon nila ’yun. Pagdating ng tapos ng trabaho nila, bibiyak-biyakin na ’yun,” Reyes said. (It’s like the tip box in a restaurant. The employees collect the money then divide it among themselves at the end of the day.)

He estimated that employees who are part of the scheme collect around P10,000 from fixers in a day. Moreover, Reyes said around 100 fixers a day operate in East Avenue alone.

But this may even be a conservative estimate.

Getting a non-professional license costs around P600. Availing of a fixer’s services in securing one generally costs around P2,500. Subtracting the costs for procuring a license, the fixer is left with around P1,900. Of this, he or she keeps P200 to P300, while the remaining P1,500 to P1,600 is split among the employees in connivance with them.

If, as what Reyes said, at least 100 fixers operate in East Avenue daily, and if each is able to find a single client, the fixing business nets around P30,000 for fixers and P160,000 for employees each day.

This does not include transactions involving vehicle registration and traffic adjudication, or fixers who swindle people and run off with their money. – Rappler.com

*Names have been changed to protect their identity. The writers of this story are college students of Ateneo de Manila University who took the Investigative Journalism class of Rappler’s Investigative Desk editor Chay F. Hofileña. This was their final project edited and vetted by the Rappler desk.

Mara Cepeda

Mara Cepeda specializes in stories about politics and local governance. She covers the Office of the Vice President, the Senate, and the Philippine opposition. She is a 2021 fellow of the Asia Journalism Fellowship and the Reham al-Farra Memorial Journalism Fellowship of the UN. Got tips? Email her at mara.cepeda@rappler.com or tweet @maracepeda.