MANILA, Philippines – Japanese police have drawn connections between a string of robberies that have hit 14 prefectures across Japan and several of its citizens currently detained in an immigration facility in the Philippines.
The case of Yuki Watanabe, a suspected leader behind the robberies, who goes by the name of “Luffy” – a character in popular Japanese manga “One Piece” – could well pass for the plot of a crime series.
The reality, though, is anything but, as the case has again cast a spotlight on corruption in the Philippines’ immigration sector, as well as lingering gaps in its justice system.
Philippine authorities, including Justice Secretary Jesus Crispin Remulla have since agreed to cooperate with Japanese authorities, who requested for Watanabe and three others to be deported to Japan.
News of the robberies made headlines in Japan in recent days after police disclosed findings of its investigations.
What are the “Luffy” robberies and what do they have to do with the Philippines? Here’s what we know about the case so far:
1. No confirmation yet on ‘Luffy’ in the Philippines
Police in Japan have outstanding arrest warrants for Watanabe, a certain Kiyoto Imamura, and at least two other individuals who were believed to be involved in at least 20 robberies that took place across Japan since 2022.
Watanabe, who had previously gone by the name “Luffy,” according to Japanese media, is one of 17 Japanese citizens currently held at the Bureau of Immigration’s (BI) detention center.
In an interview with reporters on Monday, January 30, Remulla said Philippine authorities have yet to identify which of the 17 Japanese in detention was the man Japanese authorities had suspected was “Luffy.”
“I cannot confirm that because they’re the ones, it’s only the Japanese police who can identify the person because the crimes are happening in Japan,” Remulla said.
All four individuals wanted in Japan were likewise believed to be senior members of a fraud group of which 36 of its members were arrested in the Philippines back in 2019.
Watanabe, meanwhile, was arrested last April 2021, Remulla said.
2. Robbery masterminds may be operating from Manila
Japanese media reports offered a glimpse of how robberies were supposedly planned by the Japanese detained in Manila.
Citing findings from a police investigation, journalists in Japan said that police analyzed phones of other individuals arrested in connection with robberies that began in 2022 and found that some received instructions from “Luffy” as well as a “Kim” and “Mitsuhashi.”
The phone numbers allegedly connected to “Luffy” and “Kim” appeared to have come from the Philippines. Japanese police believe the two may either be the same person or are associates.
The Yomiuri Shimbun reported crime groups had turned to using overseas bases in recent years to avoid detection by Japanese authorities.
3. Instructions sent through Telegram
In the course of its investigations, police in Japan also said they discovered that individuals who carried out the robberies responded to ads across the internet offering money to carry out “dark” part-time jobs that often involved illegal activities.
After applying for the jobs, individuals were told to install Telegram, an encrypted messaging app, where further instructions were then relayed. Messages were then deleted automatically after a certain period of time.
Individuals were also threatened through the app and were made to send personal information, including details on their families, to prevent them from speaking to authorities or leaving the group.
Over 30 suspects have been arrested in relation to the string of robberies that have hit at least 20 homes. One case in particular saw a 90-year-old woman murdered in her home in Tokyo last January 19.
Suspected leaders behind the string of robberies were able to control operations despite being detained in Manila because they had access to smartphones – an almost common occurrence in Philippine detention centers, where use of communication devices is prohibited, but not impossible, especially in cases where detainees bribe staff.
Remulla earlier directed the BI to confiscate any communication devices used by detainees in its facility.
“Rampant corruption is there but we have to stop it. It is something that is a job given to us, to stop this corruption inside the premises of correction detention facilities like the BJMP (Bureau of Jail Management and Penology), the BuCor (Bureau of Corrections), and even immigration detention,” he said.
4. Watanabe, Imamura facing deportation orders
Both Watanabe and Imamura are facing deportation orders from the Philippine government.
A summary deportation order was issued against Watanabe as early as May 28, 2021, over illegal entry to the Philippines and theft charges filed against him in Japan.
Despite this, he remained in the Philippines because of a pending complaint filed against at him at the Pasay City Regional Trial Court for violence against women and children (VAWC).
According to the justice department, Watanabe can be deported after the dismissal of the VAWC or after he serves his sentence if he is found guilty – whichever comes first.
Imamura faced similar deportation orders and like Watanabe, also faced a similar case for violation of the VAWC law. But on January 25, 2023, the Makati RTC dismissed the criminal case against him.
Following this, Remulla said the BI would enforce the deportation order against Imamura after securing necessary travel documents and clearance. Deportation may happen in a “matter of days,” he added.
The justice secretary said the justice department would also review the filing of Watanabe’s pending VAWC case to determine whether it may have been filed to prevent his deportation.
“Not VAWC itself but the way that the case is filed…. We have to look at the authenticity of cases filed,” Remulla said.
Remulla said he hoped to resolve the issue of handing over the four suspects to Japanese authorities as soon as possible, in consideration of the importance of diplomatic ties between the Philippines and Japan.
“Japan is a friend of the Philippines. It’s a matter of concern to us if they tell us that they are concerned about people who are fugitives from justice who are under Philippine jurisdiction.”
Much is riding on the outcome of the handover of wanted Japanese for both Manila and Tokyo. Remulla said he hopes to resolve issues related to the case before President Ferdinand Marcos Jr.’s scheduled travel to Japan for a state visit in early February.
As of Monday, the Japanese embassy in Manila and Department of Justice held a “coordination meeting” where outstanding arrest warrants from Japan for four of its nationals were presented to the Philippines. – Rappler.com
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