POGO scam suspects try to flee PH, leaving ‘Chinese’ mayor behind

Lian Buan

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POGO scam suspects try to flee PH, leaving ‘Chinese’ mayor behind

INTERCEPTED. BI intercepts the travel of Chinese Zhang Jie to Jinjiang, China at the Davao International Airport (DIA). Photo from the Bureau of Immigration

'This is the first time that members of the commission are getting death threats that are nerve-wracking and chilling,' says PAOCC spokesperson Winston Casio

MANILA, Philippines – Foreign syndicates, allegedly behind the illegal Philippine Offshore Gaming Operators (POGOs), have been trying to flee the country from different points of the archipelago, leaving behind suspended town mayor Alice Guo to face a sensational investigation by the Senate.

“We got reports from our friends that they were trying to get out of the Philippines via Puerto Princesa, via Davao, Zamboanga and Cebu…So all of them, so far, the bosses of this group have no valid passports,” Winston Casio, spokesperson of the Presidential Anti-Organized Crime Commission (PAOCC), told the Senate on Wednesday, June 26.

PAOCC can only monitor their movements and try to intercept flights for those without passports, but those with passports and have no other issues can freely go out of the country in the absence of a Hold Departure Order (HDO). HDOs can only be issued by courts when there is a charge filed before them.

The Bureau of Immigration (BI) has so far only issued an Immigration Lookout Bulletin Order (ILBO) for Guo and 17 others involved in both the Porac, Pampanga, and Bamban, Tarlac POGOs, because that is the only power available to them if there is no court charge (a complaint for qualified trafficking was filed on June 21). ILBO is only a high-alert mechanism for authorities, but it won’t stop a person with a valid passport from going out of the country.

Zhang Jie, who held majority or 40% shares in the Lucky South 99 POGO in Porac, tried to leave the country from Davao on Sunday, June 23, but was intercepted by Immigration because of visa issues. “[We] have reason to suspect that Zhang has visa problems as she declared herself as unemployed but was presenting a 9(g) commercial employment visa,” said Immigration Commissioner Norman Tansingco.

The Porac and Bamban POGOs are tied together – so far – by Dennis Cunanan, a former government official convicted of graft in the pork barrel scam, who applied for licenses of both these POGOs in 2020 with the Philippine Amusement and Gaming Corporation (Pagcor). Cunanan also did not attend the last hearing.

The ILBO list of 18 people including Guo is a mix of individuals who either incorporated, served on the board, or acted as official, for one or both of the POGOs in Porac (Lucky South 99), and Bamban, Tarlac (Hongsheng/Zun Yuan). BI could not immediately ascertain if all of the 18 are still in the country because prior to the issuance of ILBO on June 25, they had unrestricted freedom to travel.

PAOCC is also still looking for Katherine Cassandra Ong, or known as either Cassy Ong or Cassy Li, who is tied to the Porac Lucky South 99 POGO. She also recruited former presidential spokesperson Harry Roque to lawyer for Whirlwind Corporation, the real estate firm that leased its land to Lucky South. Ong is one of the “3 Chinese nationals still unaccounted for,” said Casio.

What Immigration is certain of is Guo is still in the country, said BI legal chief Arvin Cesar Santos.

POGO scam suspects try to flee PH, leaving ‘Chinese’ mayor behind
‘Stop lying’

The National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) released on Friday, June 28, the result of its examination that showed that Guo’s fingerprints are the same as the fingerprints of Guo Ha Ping, a female Chinese who arrived in the Philippines when she was 12 years old.

“[Fingerprint] is an infallible science of identification. No two persons will have the same fingerprint. So, kaya kahit na mag-iba-iba ka ng pangalan, mag-iba-iba ka ng mukha, litrato (even if you change your name, change your face, or your photo), your fingerprint will never change,” said new NBI director Jaime Santiago.

Senator Risa Hontiveros is convinced this is damning evidence that Guo obtained a fake identity. Hontiveros also earlier presented a 2005 NBI clearance from an “Alice Leal Guo” who is not Mayor Guo, but has the same birthday and the same birth province. Hontiveros said they are yet to locate the Alice Leal Guo in the clearance, and that they are “highly concerned” for her safety and wellbeing.

The Philippine Statistics Authority has moved to cancel the birth certificate of Guo, which, if granted by the Office of the Solicitor General, would strip her off of her Filipino citizenship.

Guo has been warned that failure to attend the next Senate hearing could lead to contempt, and possibly Senate arrest.

“I have been exposed to public ridicule, humiliation and hatred for several months now, tarnishing my public image, character and reputation. Unfortunately, I have already been prejudged guilty by the public despite the absence of any finding by the courts of law and proper tribunals,” said Guo in her letter to the Senate explaining her absence in the June 26 hearing.

“Mas nakaka-stress yung pagsabi ng kasinungalingan. So I would very strongly advise Mayor Alice Guo, kung gusto niyang ngayon at in the long term i-address yung mga sina-cite niyang mental health concerns, the first and biggest step she can take, even for her own sake, ay humarap na at sa wakas magsabi ng totoo,” Hontiveros said in a press conference on Friday.

(Lying is more stressful. So I would very strongly advise Mayor Alice Guo, if you want to address your mental health concerns now or in the long run, the first and biggest step she can take, even for her own sake, is to face us and tell the truth.)

Guo was an incorporator of Baofu, the real estate firm that leased its land to Honghseng, later named Zun Yuan, or the POGOs in Bamban. Her co-incorporators include Baoying Lin, a fugitive convicted in Singapore’s billion-dollar money laundering case; and Zhang Ruijin, also facing the same charge in Singapore.

“This is not only a national problem, but a regional and international problem. I hope there’s coordination between national government agencies and other countries also working against POGOs,” said Hontiveros in Filipino.

According to Hontiveros, the Chinese Embassy in Manila coordinated with Philippine law enforcement after the Bamban raid, to take custody of Huang Zhiyang who remains as treasurer of Baofu with 14% shares. Huang was also an incorporator with Guo.

“Apparently, there is a request or standing request through the Chinese Embassy in Manila to take into their jurisdiction because he is wanted, allegedly, in China for various offenses,” said Hontiveros in a mix of English and Filipino.

A Chinese crime ring even before POGO

According to PAOCC, the same people of interest they are looking at in their POGO investigation are the same fugitives who are being hunted even by China since at least 2005.

“One of the persons of interest, we can’t name him yet, has been in the country since 2005, and he has been a fugitive from China since 2005. They predate basically the phenomenon of POGO, but they have been in the Philippines as a criminal organization,” said Casio.

These were no ordinary criminals, said PAOCC, describing a chilling behavior by alleged torturers inside the Porac POGO to keep photos of their dead tortured victims in their phones.

“There were pictures, as if they are proud like saying, ‘we’re doing this, it is our job, and this is normal.’ Parang ganuon ang dating. Dun kami nanggigil (That was the impression. That’s what angered us),” said PAOCC chief Undersecretary Gilbert Cruz.

Cruz said even photos of the PAOCC raiding teams, and his own, were found in one phone.

“They are not ordinary criminals. This is the first time that members of the commission and the secretariat are getting death threats that are nerve-wracking and chilling, because these are not ordinary money-launderers,” said Casio.

“These are transnational criminals with records dating back to decades in Hong Kong, China, and Macau. How they were able to ally with local syndicates, that’s what we’re trying to find out,” said Casio.

They have an idea, Casio said, of who the “big boss” is and his whereabouts. But they can’t be confident they can pin him down.

“They know our movements. They know so many things about us. How? We don’t know,” said Casio.

Hontiveros says she will reveal “at the proper time” another investigation route they are taking that could lead to a bigger personality who was previously investigated by the Senate.

The Filipino-Chinese community has called for more prudence in the ongoing investigation, citing Sinophobic attacks since Guo’s Filipino nationality was doubted. The Philippines has grappled with Sinophobia, even as it battles pro-China disinformation.

“This is not about racism or Sinophobia. Gusto ko pong İpaalala sa mga nagsasabi nito na daan daang Chinese citizens ang tinotorture sa Bamban at sa Porac. Mayroon na ngang pinatay. We are helping them, too,” said Hontiveros.

(I want to remind everyone that there have been hundreds of Chinese citizens tortured in Bamban and Porac. Some were even killed. We are helping them too.) – Rappler.com

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Lian Buan

Lian Buan is a senior investigative reporter, and minder of Rappler's justice, human rights and crime cluster.