[Rappler Investigates] The POGO mysteries

Chay F. Hofileña

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[Rappler Investigates] The POGO mysteries
'What is clear is that law enforcers are playing catch-up with criminal elements who are well-connected, and have bribed and barreled their way through a corrupt Philippine bureaucracy'

If you think the maelstrom created by the Senate investigation into Philippine Offshore Gaming Operators (POGO) has completely subsided, you’re mistaken. Lawmakers have just taken a breather and will resume sessions on July 22. Ostensibly, so will the inquiries.

Even then, recent discoveries by operatives of the Presidential Anti-Organized Crime Commission (PAOCC) in their “welfare check” on one such POGO, this time in Porac, Pampanga, provide more grist for the mill. Mayor Alice Guo of Bamban, Tarlac, and the 10-hectare Baofu compound of POGO Zun Yuan Technology Incorporated are suddenly dwarfed by Lucky South 99, another POGO located in an expansive, minimum 10-hectare property known as the Thai Royal Court.

Senior reporter Lian Buan just pieced together more parts of a still unraveling mystery in this newly-published story, A shady POGO rises fast, law enforcers scramble to pin it down. I won’t go into the details of recent discoveries that can further fuel the imagination of conspiracy theorists. For example, you will wonder – just as we have – what supposed Chinese service uniforms, including one with a logo of the Chinese People’s Armed Police, are doing in POGO premises. Are they costumes, were they planted, are they evidence of a more intricate network of POGO operators who have ties to Chinese officialdom? This surprising discovery is the counterpart of the tunnels in Bamban that connected buildings to each other and provided employees a quick getaway route.

What is clear is that law enforcers are playing catch-up with criminal elements who are well-connected, and have bribed and barreled their way through a corrupt Philippine bureaucracy. These are truly challenging times for Filipino diplomats and their Chinese counterparts who have to hold on to an increasingly fraught relationship that is being tested by rising distrust, suspicions of espionage and compromised Filipino officials at various levels and departments, and political rhetoric that appeals to nationalist sentiments.

SENATE BUILDING. Speaking of the Senate, remember Jejomar Binay-era Hilmarc’s Construction Corporation? The firm is the same one behind the construction of the new Senate building in Taguig. Way back 2014, Hilmarc’s, along with then-Makati mayor Binay who initiated the over P2-billion city hall parking building project, hit the headlines over allegations of overpricing. Fast-forward to 10 years later in 2024, and expenses for the new Senate home have gone through the roof with Hilmarc’s in the picture once again. Senate reporter Bonz Magsambol, in his latest Inside Track report, What’s the controversy over the P23-B new Senate building all about?, highlights the following:

  • New Senate President Chiz Escudero hit pause on the new building construction after Binay nemesis, Senator Alan Peter Cayetano, who has taken over the committee on accounts from Senator Nancy Binay, reported that the original budget of P8.9 billion has been estimated to shoot up to P23.3 billion.
  • It was Cayetano who also led the year-long investigation into Makati’s infrastructure projects in 2014. By then the former Makati mayor had already declared his intent to run for president in the 2016 elections and was the top choice in April 2014. Close to yearend, his ratings plummeted and he became the biggest loser – attributed in large part to the Senate investigations into supposed overpriced Makati infra projects.
  • The Department of Public Works and Highways (DPWH), project manager of the Senate building project, had allowed “variations, deviations, and modifications” in various stages amounting to P833 million, according to Cayetano. Expect DPWH to be summoned to foreseeable Senate hearings.

It’s Cayetano versus Binay all over again, isn’t it, still against the backdrop of the Taguig-Makati political tussle? 

HUMAN RIGHTS IN THE HOUSE. Over at the House of Representatives, what would you make out of a House investigation into Duterte-era drug war killings led by human rights committee chair and Manila 6th District Representative Benny Abante? The reelected congressman (in 2022) is also a senior pastor of the Metropolitan Bible Baptist Ekklesia – previously named the Metropolitan Bible Baptist Church and Ministries he founded in 1975.

Recall that Abante co-authored House Resolution 1477 that urged the Marcos administration to extend “full cooperation to the ICC Prosecutor” also probing into the same possible crimes against humanity that resulted in thousands of deaths under Duterte. The ICC in the House resolution refers to the International Criminal Court and its prosecutor Karim Khan, who had opposed the Philippine government’s appeal to suspend the ICC investigation. The Court eventually rejected that appeal in July 2023.

Should Abante be taken seriously, considering that he is a National Unity Party (NUP) member just like Paolo Duterte, son of former president Rodrigo Duterte? NUP supported the candidacy of Vice President Sara Duterte, too, in the last presidential elections. 

Was it a form of concession when Abante announced early on that his committee would not summon the ex-president and Senator Ronald “Bato” dela Rosa out of respect and courtesy? What kind of an investigation would that be without the principals – one who barked the orders and the other who was known to be the architect of the deadly Oplan Tokhang – being invited to the committee hearings? Lian essentially asks the same question: Will the House drug war hearings yield anything substantial?

What have emerged from the hearings so far as gleaned from this story: Drug war reinvestigation ‘deceptive’ for victims? 

  • 52 cases of drug war-related police operations being reinvestigated have resulted in the closure or provisional closure of 30 cases already, according to Deputy Director for Operations Jose Justo Yap of the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI). This was due to a lack of investigative leads or disinterest on the part of families to pursue complaints.
  • According to Duterte-time justice secretary and now Solicitor General Menardo Guevarra, their investigations were hampered by the lack of cooperation of victims’ families. But haven’t families of victims already repeatedly told their stories and shared information with authorities?
  • In Laguna and Cavite, site of many police killings, 3 of 4 homicide investigations had been “provisionally closed” due to insufficient investigative leads and one had already been terminated because of the family’s supposed disinterest, also according to the NBI. Six of the 9 police officers who had been investigated are back on active duty.

In separate investigations, Lian has established that the 52 cases that are supposedly being reinvestigated involve 155 policemen. Two have resulted in criminal indictments, five in criminal trials, and guess how many criminal convictions? Only one for murder in March 2023. Separate from the 52 cases, there was a prior conviction of three cops in November 2018 for the high-profile murder case involving teenager Kian delos Santos who was killed in August 2017. 

No different from most lawmakers during committee hearings, even the pastor Abante could not resist cutting and berating resource persons he had invited. (READ and WATCH: Abante says being afraid to speak publicly is ‘preposterous.’ He is wrong.) The full video is here. If he were truly a spiritual man, perhaps more compassion and understanding of the psyche of victims and their families left behind would be in order? It’s already quite a feat for the few who have managed to conquer their fears to come forward and tell their horrific stories. – Rappler.com

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Chay F. Hofileña

Chay Hofileña is editor of Rappler's investigative and in-depth section, Newsbreak. Among Rappler’s senior founders and editors, she is also in charge of training. She obtained her graduate degree from Columbia University’s School of Journalism in New York.