Bureau of Immigration

‘Pastillas’ scam masterminds amassed up to P40 billion – Hontiveros

JC Gotinga

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‘Pastillas’ scam masterminds amassed up to P40 billion – Hontiveros

Joseph Vidal/Senate PRIB

The hunt for the 'protector' of the so-called 'pastillas' immigration bribery scheme's masterminds is still on, says Senator Risa Hontiveros

Alleged masterminds of bribery and other corrupt schemes at the Bureau of Immigration (BI) have amassed an estimated P40 billion, Senator Risa Hontiveros said on Tuesday, October 20.

Hontiveros announced this as the Senate committee on women, children, family relations, and gender equality held a 7th hearing on the so-called “pastillas” bribery scheme, and alleged abuses in the visa-upon-arrival (VUA) system for Chinese arrivals at airports that have played out since 2017.

The VUA system was suspended in January after allegations of abuse and corruption surfaced.

One of the alleged masterminds of the “pastillas” scheme, Marc Red Mariñas, physically attended Tuesday’s hearing. He was one of several BI personalities the Senate panel had cited in contempt when they skipped a similar hearing on October 6.

Marc was the head of the BI Port Operations Division (POD) when the “pastillas” scheme allegedly began and flourished at the arrivals section of Manila’s Ninoy Aquino International Airport (NAIA).

His father, Maynardo Mariñas, former head of the BI Special Operations Communications Unit (SOCU), attended Tuesday’s hearing virtually.

Immigration officer Jeffrey Dale Ignacio, who confessed to have been a “foot soldier” in the scheme, reaffirmed the allegation he made on October 6 that Marc was the mastermind of the “pastillas” scheme.

Allison Chiong, an immigration officer who came out as a witness earlier this year, made a similar accusation against Marc on Tuesday.

Marc denied the allegation.

The National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) has so far sued 19 personalities tagged in the “pastillas” scheme including Ignacio, but not Marc, who denied having connections with the Office of the Ombudsman. Ignacio earlier said Marc was meeting with a contact from the Ombudsman to help get them out of trouble.

Marc admitted meeting with Ignacio and other “foot soldiers” in the scheme at a restaurant on September 8, saying he only wanted to help them because they used to be his subordinates. Ignacio had said the group met to plan a strategy to avoid prosecution, with Marc still calling the shots.

Former Bureau of Immigration Port Operations Division head Marc Red Mariñas during the Senate hearing on October 20, 2020. Photo by Joseph Vidal/Senate PRIB
An organized crime

According to Hontiveros, the “pastillas” scheme had a systematic, pyramid-like business model, and it could not have been random, sporadic instances of arrivals bribing immigration officers to get past the gates.

NBI lawyer Emeterio Dongallo Jr affirmed this, saying probe findings indicate the “pastillas” scheme was an organized modus operandi with a hierarchy of operators.

Taking a cut from every roll of cash handed to “foot soldiers” at immigration gates, the masterminds of the “pastillas” scheme amassed an estimated P30 billion, while kickbacks from abuses of the VUA system went straight into some officials’ pockets, Hontiveros said.

All in all, these schemes have earned its perpetrators some P40 billion in illicit money, the Senate panel chief added.

Citing figures from the BI, Hontiveros said that of some 4 million Chinese arrivals since 2017, only around 150,000 applied for VUA. The rest, some 3.8 million, must have paid the P10,000 bribe in the “pastillas” scheme.

Hontiveros said the uncontrolled influx of illegal Chinese arrivals contributed to criminal activities surrounding the Philippine offshore gaming operator (POGO) industry. To illustrate her point, the senator noted that the 4 million arrivals exceed the population of Quezon City.

“Kumbaga, bakit mas marami pa sa mga residente ng Quezon City ang bilang ng Chinese na pinapapasok sa bansa (In other words, why does the number of Chinese let into the country exceed the number of Quezon City residents)? Hontiveros said.

Who is the protector of the alleged masterminds?

While Marc was allegedly on top of the “pastillas” scheme, his father Maynardo, as SOCU chief at the time, was in charge of checking and auditing the VUA system.

“Tiba-tiba ang pamilyang Mariñas, pero nanatili pa rin na tanong ay: Sino ang protector nila? (The Mariñas family was raking it in, but the lingering question is: Who is their protector)?” Hontiveros said.

Vitaliano Aguirre II, the former justice secretary with oversight of the BI at the time, had appointed the younger Mariñas as POD head even if his father was already SOCU chief. Aguirre has repeatedly denied knowing of the older Mariñas’ appointment, saying he did not “micromanage” the BI’s affairs.

At Tuesday’s hearing, Maynardo confirmed that his son Marc was a high school classmate of Aguirre’s son Aries. However, the older Mariñas denied having personally known Aguirre prior to his stint as justice secretary, or having played golf with him.

Aguirre issued Department Order No. 41 in 2017, which extended the VUA privilege to Chinese arrivals who had not previously secured visas from the Department of Foreign Affairs. At Tuesday’s hearing, Aguirre said this was upon the request of then-Tourism Secretary Wanda Teo, who was seeking to improve on her department’s performance by attracting more tourists from mainland China.

Asked whether Marc provided input to the department order, Aguirre again said he did not “micromanage” such affairs, and it was his undersecretary at the time, Eric Balmes, who would know.

Hontiveros has been trying to close in on the “big fish” behind the corruption schemes. Marc is so far the highest ranking official tagged by witnesses Chiong and Ignacio.

Chiong on Tuesday said word went around that much of the money made in the pastillas scheme was meant to fund Marc’s campaign when he ran for mayor of Muntinlupa City in 2019.

Meanwhile, columnist Ramon Tulfo, Teo’s brother, earlier accused Aguirre of being on top of the “pastillas” scheme, which Aguirre denied.

Travel agencies complicit?

The BI, for its part, said its personnel involved in the “pastillas” scam now face cases of grave misconduct. Hontiveros welcomed this.

“Grave misconduct comes with it the penalties of dismissal from office. I trust that the NBI will follow through and bring to justice all those responsible for lowering the draw bridge and draining the moat,” she said.

During Tuesday’s hearing, Hontiveros also looked into the role travel agencies played in the modus operandi. One travel agency, Empire International Travel and Tours, handled about 30% of VUA applications, equivalent to 50,000 applications by Hontiveros’ estimate.

Benjamin Kalaw, lawyer of Empire owner Liya Wu, said the business grossed P1,000 for every VUA applicant – much lower than his earlier claim of P3,500 to P7,000 per applicant.

Hontiveros questioned Wu’s absence from the hearing. Kalaw said his client feared for her and her business’ reputation. The senator told the lawyer to present his client to the Senate panel in a succeeding hearing.

Besides the questionable nature of POGOs themselves, these nefarious practices at the country’s immigration counters have led to crimes such as human trafficking and prostitution with POGO workers as the clientele.

With the “protector” of the corruption schemes’ alleged masterminds still unidentified, Hontiveros said her panel will continue its investigation, and it is only a matter of time until the guilty are found out. – Rappler.com

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JC Gotinga

JC Gotinga often reports about the West Philippine Sea, the communist insurgency, and terrorism as he covers national defense and security for Rappler. He enjoys telling stories about his hometown, Pasig City. JC has worked with Al Jazeera, CNN Philippines, News5, and CBN Asia.