The talahib of Recto
I can still remember the first time I set foot along Recto and Avenida. There were a lot of pedestrians crossing the street, as if playing patintero with the vehicles. There were old buildings turned into cheap motels, and old cinema houses turned into strip bars. It’s hard to imagine the glory of Recto; now this district is but a reminder of the past.
Plenty of goods are sold on the sidewalks. Atop the buildings are billboards advertising motels and male erectile supplements.
The thought of going to Recto can give most a bit of distress. Personally, it fascinates me. Maybe it’s the idea of decay and corruption, or the cryptic atmosphere of its rotting buildings. Whatever it is, the place has captivated me.
One afternoon a few weeks back, I was in need of some printer ink.
I’ve heard many stories about Recto. From my college days, it was always about the counterfeiting and thesis-writing services. I even had a chance to see this shady business firsthand when a classmate asked me to accompany him to Recto years ago. He needed the services of an expert to forge a voter’s ID. He was expecting money to be remitted from a relative, and the ID was needed to receive the cash. During that visit, we dealt with a guy who agreed to do the work. We waited patiently for hours but he never returned. This memory is so vivid that I can still recall the guy’s face. Lesson learned, the hard way.
The stalls that offer fake documents are usually called “talahib” or weed. People said that the term “talahib” comes from the tenacious quality of weed. The grasp of the talahib’s roots is so deep and strong that killing it is an exercise in futility. It is indeed the perfect metaphor for Recto’s counterfeiters, a resilient business and culture.
There are many people who patronize this business, including my taxi driver buddies, who had recommended getting a copy of a copy of a driver’s license from the talahib. In times of “trouble” or when a traffic enforcer won’t accept a cash payment, simply get away by surrendering to the cops a talahib-crafted ID.
That afternoon, while I was walking along Avenida to go to Odeon mall, I noticed a man whose face looked troubled. He was holding a pink transparent envelope that carried some documents. One of these was a seaman’s passbook. I asked him what the problem was.
This guy, *Ramon, told me he had been waiting for a man named *Waldo for an hour. He said he gave everything to Waldo for the service: full name, the details of the certificate he wanted to be forged, and Php 1,300 as payment.
I sensed something was wrong with this transaction because an old-timer told us that these services only take two hours to finish. Ramon insisted on waiting, even when the people around him said that Waldo was a conman. Eventually, Ramon let it go and went to another counterfeiter to forge his documents.
As I watched them negotiate, the lady who introduced herself as the “shop owner” started to have a little chat with me. She showed me several examples of what they do. They usually don’t want people to take photos of their “art” because of security concerns. However, she made an exception by letting me take some pictures of the IDs.
History and hierarchy
The shop owner went by the name *Ate Lucy. The stall they occupied, which is located under the train station in Recto Avenue, serves as their house, too. Together with her husband, Lucy has battled poverty and hunger with the talahib business. As far as Lucy can remember, forging public documents and IDs has been her life’s work. She started getting “contracts” when she was just 12 years old. Now, she is 56.
Lucy shared the details of their standard protocol for the authorities and the people who suck the milk out of their business.
As Lucy explained, they are not actually working for themselves. There is a system, and at the top of the hierarchy is the financier of the business. He owns the machines that they use and the spot where they create the “masterpieces” that can make you graduate a four-year course within a couple of hours. He takes a big cut out of every transaction.
Second-in-line to the owner is the counterfeiter, who is considered as the “maestro” of the trade. Many people who are now working abroad owe the maestro their new identities. According to Lucy, the maestro who created the forged documents when this business started is still around today, and that he still makes forgeries. He’s now more than 70 years old!
At the bottom of the hierarchy are the runners of the shops, to which Ate Lucy and her husband belong. The cut for every person in the hierarchy goes like this: 50% for the financier, 40% for the maestro, and the remaining 10% goes to the runners.
Swaying along with the authorities
The remaining cut for the runners still needs to be divided. The runners are required to pay homage and protection to some of the policemen stationed around Recto. In fact, I saw policemen patrolling as I spoke to Lucy.
As they walked by, it was as if they did not see Lucy or her shop. For Ate Lucy and the rest of the runners, the price for being invisible is a monthly payment of Php 50,000 to the station officer of the nearest precinct. They usually get this large amount from the combined earnings of all the runners and contractors in the area. In addition to that, they still need to pay around Php 25 to Php 300 whenever a “croc-policeman,” a police henchman, decides to extorts them on a whim.
For the runners, this is their everyday life. In Lucy’s words: “Kami na ang nagtatrabaho para sa kanila e, sa awa naman ng diyos nakakapagtira naman kami kahit pangkain sa araw-araw.” (We are the ones who work for the cops; thank god there’s still some money left for our daily meals.)
Whenever the payment of their homage is delayed, a surprise raid happens. She said this raid is a bit funny because it is selective: it only happens to stores that are unable to pay their part of the homage.
As for Ramon, I couldn’t blame him for entrusting his future to a forger’s ability. He had failed the last certification that he needed in order to leave the country. I hope Ramon can still get on board—sometimes, the ends are justified by the means.
After decades of raids and demolitions, the roots of the talahib are still intact. And they continue to grow.