New witness in ‘pastillas’ scam names ex-BI ports chief, other officials as masterminds

An immigration officer tagged in the so-called “pastillas” bribery scheme named its alleged masterminds before a Senate committee on Tuesday, October 6.

During a hearing by the Senate committee on women, children, family relations, and gender equality, immigration officer Jeffrey Dale Ignacio enumerated several of his superiors at the Bureau of Immigration (BI), saying they controlled and benefited much from the scheme:

  • Marc Red Mariñas, Port Operations Division chief at the time;
  • Erwin Ortañez, Travel Control and Enforcement Unit (TCEU) overall; head for the Ninoy Aquino International Airport (NAIA);
  • Glennford Comia, TCEU head for NAIA Terminal 1;
  • Benlado Guevarra, TCEU head for NAIA Terminal 2;
  • Danieve “Denden” Binsol, TCEU head for NAIA Terminal 3;
  • Deon Carlo Albao, TCEU deputy head for NAIA Terminal 1;
  • Arlan Mendoza, TCEU deputy head for NAIA Terminal 2;
  • Anthony Lopez, TCEU deputy head for NAIA Terminal 3.

Ignacio told the panel led by Senator Risa Hontiveros that the officials he named “ang nagbabasbas, nagko-control ng pastillas scheme, at kumukubra ng maraming pera (were the ones who were giving their blessing, controlling the pastillas scheme, and collecting a lot of money).”

These were based on his personal knowledge, and were an open secret among the members of the “pastillas group,” Ignacio added.

The “pastillas” bribery scandal broke out in January when Hontiveros revealed that several immigration officers had been allowing the illegal arrivals in exchange for cash handed to them in small bundles similar to “pastillas” or candy rolls.

The scheme facilitated the illegal entry of Chinese workers bound for Philippine offshore gaming operators (POGO), mostly run by Chinese owners. The Senate probe found that POGOs have spurred other illegal activities such as human trafficking and prostitution.

Ignacio was one of 19 immigration personnel sued by the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) on September 2 for their alleged involvement in the pastillas scheme. He was instrumental to the entrapment on September 21 of NBI lawyer Joshua Capiral, who was allegedly case-fixing for personalities tagged in the pastillas scheme.

“Ako po ay humaharap sa inyo nang sa gayon ay malinis ko ang aking pangalan, at kung may nagawa man akong pagkakamali, ay upang maipakita ko ang aking taos-pusong pagsisisi, at maibangon ang aking dignidad,” Ignacio told the Senate panel on Tuesday.

(I am facing you in order to clear my name, and if I have done anything wrong, to show my sincere regret, and to recover my dignity.)

Ignacio admitted having been part of the “pastillas group,” and said the testimony of the earlier witness Allison Chiong, also an immigration officer, was true.

Ignacio said he, like Chiong, was a mere “foot soldier” in the bribery scheme. Thus far Chiong and other resource persons summoned by the Senate panel have not been able to directly identify the alleged masterminds. Ignacio’s statements have moved the investigation forward, closer to identifying the “big fish,” Hontiveros said.

Mariñas et al 'tried to obstruct justice'

Hontiveros said Mariñas and the other alleged masterminds of the scheme tried to “obstruct justice and thwart accountability before this committee and before the court of law.” 

Following Chiong’s exposé earlier this year, Ignacio and others tagged in the controversy received subpoenas from the NBI. Ignacio said he and others summoned by the NBI received a call from Joel Ferrer and his son Jeff Ferrer – lawyers hired by Mariñas.

The lawyers told them not to obey the summons, saying no formal charges had been filed against them – at the time – so it was alright to ignore the subpoenas. Ignacio showed the panel a smartphone screen shot of this piece of communication.

“Laking gulat ko nung malaman ko na si Sir Red Mariñas, at si Sir Erwin Ortañez, at ibang boss na hindi nakasuhan ay nagbigay ng statement sa NBI. Parang ginawa kaming shield para kami ’yung makasuhan at hindi sila makasuhan,” Ignacio said.

(To my surprise, I learned that Sir Red Mariñas, and Sir Erwin Ortañez, and other bosses not sued gave statements to the NBI. It’s like they used us as a shield so we would be sued and they would not.)

Knowing a case against him might be looming, Ignacio said he received a call from Fahad Calaca who talked about an “NBI insider” who might be able to help them out. When Ignacio worried about the P100,000 bribe this “insider” was charging, he said Calaca told him Mariñas would help with the money. Ignacio also showed the panel a smartphone screen shot of this exchange.

The group met with Capiral at a restaurant on August 28, Ignacio said. After this, he decided to cooperate with the NBI, which then surveilled the groups’ succeeding meetings. During one such meeting on September 8, Mariñas told the group that he had a contact with the Ombudsman, implying this would help them wiggle out of the cases.

Sino ang contact ni Mariñas sa Ombudsman? Pati ba Ombudsman ay sangkot na rin sa korapsyon (Who is Mariñas’ contact with the Ombudsman? Is the Ombudsman also involved in corruption)? This revelation is worrying and the NBI should look into this immediately,” Hontiveros said. 

Aguirre the 'godfather'?

Mariñas was appointed BI Port Operations Division chief by Vitaliano Aguirre II, the justice secretary at the time. This was even if Mariñas’ father, Maynardo Mariñas, was then the head of the BI Special Operations Communications Unit.

When Hontiveros questioned the simultaneous appointment of the father-and-son tandem to ranking posts in the BI, Aguirre, who attended the hearing, defended his decision. He said he appointed Marc Red Mariñas because the man was qualified and had his trust.

Besides, Aguirre said he did not “micromanage” the BI’s affairs as to know who else had already been appointed to other posts. Aguirre added that he had nothing to do with Maynard Mariñas’ appointment, and that he stands by his appointment of Marc Red Mariñas, a friend of his son.

Hontiveros pointed out that it would have been “oversight, not micromanagement,” to crosscheck appointments of officials.

During the hearing, Aguirre repeatedly jabbed at columnist Ramon Tulfo, who earlier claimed Aguirre was involved in the “pastillas” mess. Tulfo, who attended the hearing via web conference, told the panel that Aguirre was the “godfather” of the BI operators of the scheme.

Aguirre denied Tulfo’s allegations.

Cited in contempt

Marc Red Mariñas, Maynardo Mariñas, Rodolfo “Totoy” Magbuhos, and Danieve “Denden” Binsol were absent from Tuesday’s hearing. Senator Imee Marcos, a member of the Senate committee leading the probe, moved to cite them in contempt.

Hontiveros made the ruling, and asked the Senate sergeant-at-arms to present the 4 men to the committee during the next hearing of the issue, which has yet to be scheduled.

NBI special action unit chief Emeterio Dongallo Jr told the panel that with the additional testimony from Ignacio, more people would be included in the investigation than an original 40. More cases involving the “pastillas” scheme will be filed within a month, he added.

Ignacio said he began getting involved with the “pastillas group” in late 2017, when the suspension of immigration officers’ augmentation and overtime pay left him in financial trouble. He had to borrow money and even rent out his own room to make ends meet.

Still, Ignacio said he hesitated to take part in the modus operandi. But months later, when he was already deep in debt and no one could lend him money anymore, he was “forced” to join the racket as a “foot soldier” like Chiong, he said.

At the height of the scam, Ignacio and his fellow “frontliners” received P5,000 to P20,000 weekly, or every two weeks, he said.

When a reshuffling in the BI put Grifton Medina as Port Operations Division chief in Medina’s place, the “pastillas” scheme went on, Ignacio added.

Hindi naman po kami makakagalaw, mga foot soldiers, kung walang basbas sa itaas (We wouldn’t be able act, us foot soldiers, without a blessing from above),” Ignacio told the panel.

Hontiveros said the Senate probe would continue until the matter is fully resolved.

“The masterminds of corruption in the BI have no way out. This corruption left our borders unchecked, which led to Chinese criminals easily setting foot in our country and abusing our women and children,” Hontiveros said.

“New sources are revealing new information. The walls are closing in on all these corrupt officials. The truth will eventually come out. It’s not a matter of if, but when,” she added. – Rappler.com

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.

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