MANILA'S Chinatown is seething with anger, but perhaps worse, it is feeling almost utterly helpless. Over July and August alone, 30 people were kidnapped in a new wave of attacks on the ethnic Chinese community of Manila, raising the intensity of the country's abduction-for-ransom crisis. In response, the government announced the formation of a special 'Task Force Dragon' to stop the kidnappings but Professor Teresita Ang See - spokesman for the non-government Citizens Action Against Crime, which represents the Chinese community - is not impressed. 'Each time the government shouts it is going all out against bank robberies, all out against kidnappings, they escalate again,' said Ms Ang See. 'The line of authority [among law enforcement agencies] isn't clear. When things go wrong they blame each other. There is no moral authority and so criminals are just taunting the government.' For the Chinese community, one of the most prosperous in the Philippines, kidnappings have become more than simply hard-luck cases involving the very, very rich and extremely unfortunate. Even middle-class families live in fear that their children will not return home safely. Some parents now demand their children telephone them upon reaching school, and then several times a day after that, to make sure they are safe. The Chinese appear to have been targeted simply because of their relative wealth. Although ethnic Chinese constitute only about two per cent of the Philippine population, they control more than half of the country's capital. Many of these kidnappings end in tragedy even after a ransom has been paid. So far this year 11 people have been killed in 76 separate incidents involving 112 victims, according to Ms Ang See. Official figures failed to reflect the actual number of abductions, she said. For example, the Philippine National Police Force last year reported 95 incidents of kidnapping. But Citizens Action put the number at 125. The discrepancy is partly explained by the fact that many kidnappings go unreported as families of the victims often prefer to pay ransoms quietly rather than get the police involved. This is because crime-fighters have often botched rescue attempts, leading to the murder of the captives. In one case this year, a 16-year-old boy was killed when the kidnappers discovered the police were closing in on them, even after the ransom had been paid. 'This seems to show a lack of capability to rescue victims,' said Ms Ang See. And the fear of kidnapping has rippled not simply through the wealthy community of Chinese-Filipinos, the parents of the 16-year-old, according to Ms Ang See, were 'just ordinary people'. 'Most of the Chinese [victims] are just middle class,' she said. Disgusted by the lack of government action, some Chinese-Filipinos are getting out. 'A close friend of mine closed down his garment factory this year,' Ms Ang See said. 'He paid a ransom of 2.5 million pesos [about HK$740,000]. He decided to pull out, closing his factory and putting 300 people out of work.' Increasingly, the kidnappings have gone beyond the ethnic Chinese community. Last month, for example, a famous television talk show host and her maid were stopped by four armed men and abducted while driving in a government car. Police managed to rescue the victims the next day. This incident, and several other abductions, have been reported since Task Force Dragon came into being at the end of August. Kidnapping is, for President Fidel Ramos, just one part of a growing crime wave he appears incapable of reversing. The abductions actually began in the final years of the Aquino administration. As a former armed forces supremo who defended the 1986 People Power Revolution against a series of attempted military takeovers, Mr Ramos seemed to be about as capable an enforcer of law and order as the country could hope to find when it elected him to the presidency in 1992. But while military coup attempts are now a thing of the past and political stability seems secure, officials admit the government has not delivered on its pledge to check a rate of crime which makes the Philippines, by some measures, one of the most dangerous countries in the world. Indeed, half way through Mr Ramos' six-year term, not only is kidnapping rampant, but also, homicides are so numerous that a top Manila inspector says his investigators cannot cope, the Presidential Anti-Crime Commission has been emasculated by the president; drug trafficking is growing; and criminals are more audacious than ever despite the reinstatement of capital punishment in January 1994. Though so far the high crime rate does not seem to have scared away investors from overseas, economic officials are concerned that lawlessness could dampen foreign investment despite strong economic growth. According to Interpol, the Philippines has the second highest homicide rate in the world, 30 per 100,000. Reacting to growing public criticism, the president last month took direct charge of the anti-crime fight, declared 'total war' on lawlessness and ordered his seven law-enforcement agencies to come up with a plan to stop the kidnappings. He has also reactivated Task Force Hammerhead, an elite armed forces counter-intelligence group once used against coup plotters and now assigned the task of chasing bank robbers and kidnappers. 'Robbers are becoming bold,' Vice-President Joseph Estrada, head of the Anti-Crime Commission, admitted. 'Before they used to just tie up the security officers before they robbed a bank, but now they kill them first.' Justice Secretary Teofisto Guingona said statistics showed 'the crime situation is roughly a little better than last year'. 'However, the perception of the people is that it's getting worse,' he said. But whether the government can claim to have made even marginal headway is in dispute. While nationwide the police report heinous crimes punishable by death dropped by 19 per cent to just under 52,000 during the first eight months of this year compared with the same period last year, in Metro Manila the figure nearly doubled to around 1,560. Nor has the government won the war against drugs, despite tough anti-narcotics laws. The country is now a major manufacturer of 'ice', producing 75 billion pesos worth annually, just slightly less than Mexico and ahead of Colombia, according to the US Drug Enforcement Administration. It also produces 36 billion pesos worth of marijuana each year. In any event, Mr Ramos was quoted as saying police statistics showing a drop in crime were misleading. 'Our people see the reality of the crime situation by the bold occurrences of kidnappings, bank robberies, multiple murders, car-nappings and drug trafficking,' he said. Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of all is that security forces are themselves involved in a huge number of serious crimes. Mr Estrada, who arguably enjoyed more success fighting thugs as a former action hero in films than in real life as the nation's top law enforcer, said more than 4,000 police were dismissed in 1993 alone for criminal activities, and that 40 per cent of the cases his unit had cracked involved police. Police-related crime is not likely to drop significantly until the government started paying security forces better salaries, said Mr Estrada. With take-home pay of only about 2,800 pesos a month for low ranking policeman, or around the same as a labourer earns, the temptation is simply too great. Many policemen live in squatter settlements where they rub shoulders with criminal gangs, the vice-president said. Another reason for the high crime rate is the government's inability to control an estimated 100,000 unregistered firearms. So prevalent are weapons that many government offices, banks, hospitals and other public buildings have signs imploring visitors to 'deposit firearms'. According to Ms Ang See, for all the talk of special task forces and new wars on crime, law enforces are ill-equipped to battle the criminals. 'The gangs have the best cars, like Hondas, and the best hi-tech communications, while our police authorities are chasing them in broken down Lancers,' she said. 'Police use .38 calibre and .45 calibre pistols while bank robbers have high-power Uzis. How can you win in that sort of situation?' Nor are civil action groups convinced the president's latest assault on crime will be any more successful than previous crackdowns. Certainly Mr Ramos' own credibility was tarnished when agents of the Presidential Anti-Crime Commission were implicated in the alleged summary execution of 11 suspected members of a gang of robbers last May. The president has stripped the commission of many of its functions. 'Crime fighting has been done haphazardly, which has encouraged the robbers and kidnappers, and the justice system is not what it should be,' a cabinet member said privately. Many critics say the justice system favours the criminals and some officials believe the hand of law enforcers needs to be strengthened. Mr Guingona notes police cannot make arrests without warrants unless they see crimes taking place. A proposed government bill would permit arrests on the basis of 'reasonable belief' that a suspect had committed a crime. Symbolic of the perceived inefficiency of the justice system is the fact that despite capital punishment, none of the 64 people on death row has been executed because the government has yet to decide the method of execution.