Duterte, however, said BI chief Jaime Morente would not be sacked.
Geremy Pintolo/ File
Duterte sacks BI execs in ‘pastillas’ scheme But he ‘loves’ BI’s Morente
Christina Mendez (The Philippine Star) - February 21, 2020 - 12:00am

MANILA, Philippines — President Duterte yesterday ordered the relief and investigation of 19 officials and personnel of the Bureau of Immigration (BI) who are involved in the “pastillas” racket, which facilitates the entry of Chinese tourists who later work in Philippine offshore gaming operators (POGOs) in exchange for grease money.

Duterte, however, said BI chief Jaime Morente would not be sacked.

“Yesterday, I terminated all sa kay Morente,” Duterte said last night in Davao City. “Morente, I love him because he became my police chief here. He is kind.”

Duterte stressed that he remains steadfast in his campaign against corruption.

At Malacañang, presidential spokesman Salvador Panelo announced the sacking of the BI personnel as the Senate started yesterday its inquiry into the money-making scheme.

Duterte, a former lawyer and public prosecutor, acted on the matter after “he received
 reports and he found prima facie or probable cause,” according to Panelo.

“The President considers this anomaly, which some define as the pastillas scheme, as a grave form of corruption which cannot be countenanced by the government,” Panelo said.

“Somebody reported the matter to (the President), complained and apparently, the proof constitutes probable cause, that’s why they were sacked,” he added.

On Wednesday night, the Palace spokesman discussed the matter with the President, who has expressed his disappointment in yet another issue of corruption hounding the bureaucracy.

“As we have repeatedly stressed, there are no sacred cows in this administration. Any official or employee who commits any wrong in the performance of their respective duties shall be meted with the punishment that they deserve and in accordance with our penal laws.”

Duterte had earlier said he would hold heads of agencies responsible, under the doctrine of command responsibility, if their subordinates would be involved in corruption activities.

Despite this, Panelo said Immigration Commissioner Jaime Morente still enjoys the trust and confidence of the President “until such time as the President makes any announcement.”

“The present situation at the Bureau of Immigration as well as how it is being run by Commissioner Morente will be taken up in the next Cabinet meeting,” he said.

On floating status

The BI yesterday said it would comply with Duterte’s orders and immediately placed on floating status pending investigation the 19 immigration personnel who were allegedly involved in the pastillas scheme.

“In compliance with the directive of the President, we are immediately relieving the services of 19 immigration personnel mentioned during (yesterday’s) Senate hearing regarding the pastillas scheme,” BI spokesperson Dana Sandoval said.

“We are not taking this lightly. The exposé by immigration officer Alex Chiong is deeply alarming and we will ensure that we will take every measure to destroy this system of corruption and impose the harshest penalties on erring personnel. Corruption has no place in the bureau,” Sandoval added.

Weekly ‘VIP services’

Some immigration officers assigned at the Ninoy Aquino International Airport (NAIA) terminals 1 and 3 received P20,000 and P8,000 weekly “VIP services,” respectively, from immigrants, mostly Chinese, who are casino high rollers, according to an immigration officer.

BI officer 1 Allison Aguas Chiong also named some of the immigration officers who headed the “syndicated groups” of the pastillas scheme, which was exposed during the Senate investigation into the crimes committed by POGOs on Monday.

Chiong noted that immigration officers received, through a group chat in the Viber application, a list of names of Chinese nationals who were to be allowed entry into the Philippines without going through the usual immigration process.

“These syndicated groups were headed by different personalities within the BI. Some of these personalities are Totoy Magbuhos, Deon Albao (alias “Nancy”), Paul Borja (alias “Lisa”), Anthony Lopez (alias “AL”) and Dennis Robles (alias “DR”). They occupy various plantilla positions within the bureau. Bien Guevarra, Glenn Comia and Den Binsol, despite being no longer working with the bureau, still maintain their syndicated group’s operations,” he said in his opening statement.

Chiong was one of the resource persons in the public hearing of the Senate committee on women, children, family relations and gender equality,  chaired by Sen. Risa Hontiveros, which tackled S. Res. 131-Rescues of Sexual Trafficking Victims.

Chiong said the syndicated groups, headed by the BI’s former officials and present personnel, have been facilitating the smooth entry of Chinese who arrive in the county mostly to work in POGOs.

“As a frontline immigration officer, I have personally witnessed various illegal transactions over the years involving the extortion of money in exchange for unimpeded passage through the Philippines, whether leaving or entering our country,” he said.

In 2016, Chiong recalled that the Department of Justice (DOJ) removed the so-called overtime pay of immigration officers, which resulted in general unrest and disgruntlement among the immigration workforce.

“To cope with the substantial deduction of their salaries, some immigration officers decided to offer ‘VIP services’ for immigrants who are casino high rollers. This ‘VIP service’ involved immigration officers accepting P2,000 for each high roller, in exchange for the latter’s convenient and seamless immigration,” he told Sens. Hontiveros and Imee Marcos, who were present during the hearing.

“Sensing the immigration officers’ lucrative operation, the Travel Control Enforcement Unit (TCEU) chiefs, namely Bien Guevarra, Glenn Comia and Den Binsol, who were then under former Ports Operation Division (POD) chief Red Mariñas, decided to take over the operation. They took control of the collections from entering and departing passengers, then disbursed commissions at the end of every week,” Chiong said.

He added that the TCEU chiefs were relieved from their posts sometime in the middle of last year. Mariñas, on the other hand, was assigned as associate commissioner of the BI, but later resigned to run as mayor of Muntinlupa.

Chiong recalled that in 2017, he started to notice the dramatic increase of Chinese nationals entering the Philippines.

“In a day, approximately 2,000 Chinese nationals enter the airport terminal,” he said.

“These Chinese nationals were no longer required to undergo screening; they were simply let inside the Philippines without question or investigation,” he added.

Chiong, however, said the first Viber group chat was deleted when the BI airport operations came under scrutiny by the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI). To avoid detection, the names of the Chinese nationals who were to be allowed VIP treatment were no longer sent through Viber.

To circumvent the operations, Chiong said the flow of the operations changed: the immigration officers at the counter were asked to bring each Chinese national to the holding area of the TCEU. A member of the TCEU would then check if the name of the Chinese national was on the list, then he or she would be allowed entry into the Philippines without further screening or profiling.

“Naturally, this new operation caused the immigration officers great inconvenience since they had to stand up, leave their seats, then take each and every arriving Chinese national to the TCEU holding everyday. Because of this, a new Viber group chat was created which revived the original flow of the operations,” he added.

News of the operation spread fast and other syndicated groups within the BI started submitting their own list of names of Chinese nationals, according to Chiong.

“These groups worked with travel agencies in China, the latter being the origin of the names of the entering foreign nationals. The syndicated groups would often compete with each other to gain favor with the Chinese travel agencies,” he said.

“The influence of these Chinese organizations and personalities has become more apparent when they started providing immigration officers free lunch meals wrapped in Chinese newspapers. However, this recently stopped due to the travel ban on incoming Chinese nationals due to the novel coronavirus 2019,” he added.

Chiong decided to come forward after he saw on television the live broadcast of the Senate hearing chaired by Hontiveros regarding the rise of POGO-related prostitution.

Weight of testimony

Hontiveros said Chiong’s testimony has weight, considering the fact that he presented several pieces of evidence to support his claims, including video clips and Viber group chat screenshots.

The senator added that she is planning to summon individuals Chiong named in his testimony to help shed light on the matter.

“We are calling at least one more hearing to invite former BI officials before preparing a committee report, which will include policy recommendations and recommendation for accountability,” she said.

No hand

Meanwhile, the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) said it has no hand in the BI’s purported pastillas scheme.

In an interview with “The Chiefs” aired on Cignal TV’s One News on Wednesday night, Foreign Affairs Undersecretary Brigido Dulay clarified that the DFA has no knowledge nor power over the pastillas scheme that is allegedly happening at the BI.

The DFA, according to Dulay, has the role of issuing tourist visas to foreign nationals, but there are five other agencies that issue visas.

“Just to be clear: the DFA has the role of issuing visas to foreign nationals from our embassies and consulates. But, maybe, it would not surprise you to know that there are, I think, four or five other agencies that issue visas. It’s not just the DFA. There’s also what’s called visa upon arrival,” he said.

Asked about the possibility of the DFA having a say in the issuance of visas on arrival, the DFA official pointed out that it is for Congress to decide.

“I am leaving that kind of decision up to our lawmakers,” Dulay said. – With Evelyn Macairan, Cecille Suerte Felipe, Pia Lee-Brago

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