POGOs linked to crimes: Forged PH passports, money-laundering, sex trafficking

MANILA, Philippines (UPDATE) – Senators linked Philippine offshore gaming operations to a wide range of crimes, as members of the upper chamber called for the banning of POGOs from the country.

Senator Richard Gordon, in a privilege speech on Tuesday, March 3, said that the moral fabric of the Philippine society is "being damaged" through corruption, prostitution, and damage to property brought about by the influx of POGO workers in the country.

Senate Minority Leader Franklin Drilon even floated the idea of having the Senate "express its sense" on banning POGOs. 

"If we don't allow POGOs, this incident wouldn't have happened. All of these nefarious activities would have no purpose," Drilon said.

In the past, Senators Risa Hontiveros and Joel Villanueva had called for an end to POGOs in the Philippines. Villanueva had repeatedly slammed the industry for not paying the right taxes

"The negative effects clearly outweigh the supposed benefits," he said. (READ: BIR shuts down POGO for failing to pay P114-million taxes)

Philippine senators were not alone in decrying the wave of crimes that came with the entry of POGOs in the country. In August 2019, Cambodia banned Chinese-ran online gambling casinos, citing a "threat to social order."

President Rodrigo Duterte, however, said in September 2019 that the country supposedly "needs" POGOs. He said that the Philippines benefits from the industry through livelihood and real estate, driving up rental prices to the consternation of Filipinos. (READ: [ANALYSIS] Duterte and the POGO dilemma)

But several money-making schemes linked to the entry of Chinese nationals have been uncovered in previous Senate deliberations: from the "pastillas" bribery modus in the airport, tour groups offering Philippine passports to Chinese nationals, to money laundering.

Here's a rundown of issues hounding the opaque POGO industry:

Philippine passports offered to Chinese

During the Senate hearing on Monday, March 2, Hontiveros showed screenshots from messaging platform WeChat, where an agent offered Philippine birth certificates to Chinese nationals.

The message, which was in Mandarin, read: "We can process LTO driving license even tourist visa. We can also get you Philippine birth certificate, opening of Philippine bank account. Just provide photo of passport, no personal appearance needed at the bank."

According to immigration officer and whistleblower Allison Chiong, Empire Travel Agency is allegedly "very influential" in the Bureau of Immigration (BI). Chiong said that groups brought in by Empire enter the Philippines seamlessly, thanks to its "generosity" to immigration officers.

Empire executive Liya Wu, who was at the hearing on Monday, denied participation in any modus. Speaking in Tagalog, Wu said that the 22-year-old travel agency had never brought in Chinese workers for POGOs nor exerted influence over immigration officers.

Department of Tourism Director Rowena Montecillo on Monday said that they would review the services being offered by tour groups. (READ: 'Magkano at hanggang kanino?': Hontiveros reveals bribery in entry of POGO workers)

Gordon, in a separate interview, said that Chinese could also take on the identity of dead Filipinos through local civil registrars in exchange for money.

Ex-justice secretary Vitaliano Aguirre II tagged

Special envoy to China Ramon Tulfo tagged former justice secretary Vitaliano Aguirre II as the protector of immigration officials embroiled in the "pastillas" bribery scandal, where employees earned P20,000 at most weekly for escorting Chinese tourists past immigration checks. (LOOK: How syndicates, airport officials split P10,000 bribe from POGO workers)

Aguirre recommended the appointment of former BI deputy commissioner Marc Red Mariñas, who Chiong said was the lead operator of the money-making modus at the airports. (READ: ‘Pastillas’ scheme top gun appointed by former justice secretary Aguirre – Morente)

Marc Red is the son of Maynardo Mariñas, who also held the same post as his son as BI's port operations chief. Tulfo said that Aguirre was the protector, the older Mariñas was the "syndicate godfather," and the younger Mariñas was the "syndicate heir."

Calling Tulfo a "liar," Aguirre denied the claims made against him and offered to attend the future Senate hearing to answer the allegations. 

In a DZMM interview on Tuesday, Aguirre said it was Tulfo's sister and resigned tourism chief Wanda Teo who pushed for the visa-upon-arrival scheme for Chinese tourists, which was approved in 2017.

Immigration officers have millions in net worth

Hontiveros also found it unbelievable that immigration officers have millions in net worth despite being on a government payroll. (READ: Majority of immigration officers part of 'pastillas scheme' – BI whistleblower)

The younger Mariñas, whose Statement of Assets, Liabilities (SALN), and Net Worth in 2017 was at P5.5 million, was able to mount a mayoral campaign during the 2019 elections.

At the time he resigned from the BI in 2018, his post was Immigration Officer II with a Salary Grade 13, earning around P24,000 a month, in addition to augmentation pay.

Mariñas' staff Fidel Mendoza, whose post was officially Security Guard II, was on Salary Grade 5, which was roughly P12,000 a month. Yet Mendoza's SALN in 2017 was at P7.8 million. (READ: With a monthly salary of P12,000, BI security guard's net worth is P7.8 million)

Mendoza attributed his fortune to being a seaman before joining the BI, as well as his construction business on the side. 

Hontiveros said that the committee report from the marathon hearings would recommend a lifestyle check on all BI employees. (READ: Immigration officials 'deny to death' participation in pastillas scheme)

Duterte had also ordered the sacking of "all BI officials and employees" because of the bribery scheme.

Prostitutes 'ordered' online

Hontiveros said that, as the number of Chinese workers in the country rose, prostitution also flourished

Screenshots Hontiveros showed in a January 28 hearing revealed "packages" offered to clients involving sex workers of any nationality. 

The "packages" ranged in price depending on the sexual act to be performed. The cheapest – a 40-minute "service" – was being offered at P3,000, while the most expensive cost up to P45,000.

The National Bureau of Investigation confirmed the frequent "in-and-out" of Chinese nationals in hotels that house sex trafficking. 

Blacklisted, but can enter the Philippines

Part of the systematic "pastillas" scheme is the VIP treatment of blacklisted persons.

Chiong said in previous hearings that individuals blacklisted from the country were allowed to enter the Philippines for thousands of pesos. For high-profile persons, the amount could range to millions.

Money laundering

Gordon in a privilege speech on Tuesday linked POGOs to the rise of multibillion-dollar cash flows into the country.

According to data from the Bureau of Customs (BOC), some $447 million (P22.68 billion) entered the Philippines from September 2019 to February 2020. Some $210 million (P10.6 billion) or nearly half of the amount was reportedly brought in by Chinese individuals.

The BOC on Monday said that syndicates were able to bring in P18.7 billion in dirty money to the country with the "help of some police, military, and airport security personnel."

'Confiscate the passport'

On Friday, March 6, the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) announced that it had reconstituted the Inter-Agency Committee Against Passport Irregularities (ICPI) “to ensure and maintain the integrity and credibility of the [Philippine] passport.”  

While maintaining that “the Philippine ePassport system remains secure and its frontline consular personnel are vigilant when it comes to detecting attempts by non-Filipinos to obtain a PH passport,” the DFA said it was working closely with the National Bureau of Investigation and the Bureau of Immigration to look into the matter.  

The department said it had yet to receive any official reports on Chinese who use Philippine passports, but it stressed that protocols allow government agencies to “immediately confiscate the passport” when they detect such cases, and coordinate with the DFA. – Rappler.com

US$1 = P50.74

Aika Rey

Aika Rey covers the Philippine Senate for Rappler. Before writing about politicians, she covered budget, labor, and transportation issues.

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