Government to look into POGO spying claims

Alexis Romero - The Philippine Star
Government to look into POGO spying claims
Citing a shooting incident in Makati City, which resulted in the death of a Chinese online gaming worker, Gordon has expressed suspicion that China’s People’s Liberation Army has infiltrated POGOs to gather sensitive information about the Philippines, including the location of military facilities. The suspects reportedly carried PLA identification cards.
AFP / File

MANILA, Philippines — The government is ready to look into the concern of Sen. Richard Gordon that China may be using Philippine offshore gaming operators (POGOs) to gather intelligence information about the country, Malacañang said yesterday.

Citing a shooting incident in Makati City, which resulted in the death of a Chinese online gaming worker, Gordon has expressed suspicion that China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has infiltrated POGOs to gather sensitive information about the Philippines, including the location of military facilities. The suspects reportedly carried PLA identification cards.

Gordon has also claimed that some Chinese citizens who arrived in the country from Dec. 17 last year to Feb. 12 brought in more than $160 million in cash.

“Those are being investigated by law enforcement agencies,” presidential spokesman Salvador Panelo said at a press briefing yesterday.

“Anything that goes against the interest of the country is a cause of concern by this government and, for that matter, any government,” Panelo added.

The Palace spokesman said Gordon should provide law enforcers information about the supposed use of POGOs as fronts for spying and money laundering.

“(Gordon) hasn’t mentioned anything about that, but if the good senator has information on that, I think they should provide us with intelligence reports so that we can pursue their line of belief on that matter,” Panelo said.

“That is precisely why I said they should help the government, provide information so that we can properly address the matter,” he added.

President Duterte will wait for the results of the Senate investigation on issues hounding POGOs, according to Panelo.

“Most likely (Malacañang) will (conduct its own probe); but if there is already a Senate investigation, ordinarily, the President waits for that,” Panelo said.

“As the President says, any violation of any immigration law or any law of this country... will not be countenanced,” he added.

The proliferation of POGOs has been tied to illegal activities, including the emergence of prostitution dens, kidnapping of Chinese employees, tax evasion and the so-called “pastillas” scheme, where immigration personnel are bribed to allow the entry of illegal Chinese workers.

PNP to probe

The Philippine National Police (PNP) will also look into allegations that China could be conducting espionage through POGO companies.

PNP spokesman Brig. Gen. Bernard Banac told reporters yesterday the PNP is looking into the proliferation of Chinese working in POGOs.

Banac issued the statement in response to Gordon’s assessment.

Sought for comment, Banac said there is no evidence which would suggest that members of China’s armed forces are in the country. He noted that probers found out that the PLA identification cards do not belong to the suspects in the shooting.

The PNP will clarify the matter with the Chinese embassy to determine the real owners of the identification cards, according to Banac.

The PNP will also intensify its monitoring of POGO firms as it expressed alarm that some unscrupulous Chinese nationals are now killing their countrymen.

‘Pastillas protector’

Meanwhile, former justice secretary Vitaliano Aguirre II will be asked to face a Senate inquiry after he was tagged as the “protector” of the alleged multibillion-peso “pastillas” racket at the Bureau of Immigration (BI), where Chinese nationals are escorted and allowed easy entry to the country after paying “service fees” to corrupt officers.

At the resumption of the inquiry of the Senate committee on women and children, immigration officer and whistle-blower Allison Chiong and broadcaster Ramon Tulfo pointed to Aguirre as allegedly benefiting from the reported racket where each Chinese national carrying tourist visas or given visa upon arrival is given special treatment after paying P10,000.

Bulk of the escorted Chinese nationals are believed to have ended up working in POGOs despite having only tourist visas or visas issued upon arrival.

“(Aguirre) is the protector of the syndicate based on Mr. Chiong’s report to me,” Tulfo told the committee chaired by Sen. Risa Hontiveros.

Tulfo said he wrote of Aguirre’s activities and irregularities at the BI in a column last year with Chiong as among his sources. He alleged that a helicopter regularly transports Aguirre’s share of the illegal activities at the BI to his house in Mulanay, Quezon.

The BI is under the Department of Justice (DOJ).

Hontiveros noted that Tulfo’s statements as well as evidence provided by Chiong to the committee that included photos seem to corroborate each other.

What arose during the hearing was that Aguirre’s appointees when he still headed the DOJ, namely Maynardo Mariñas and his son Marc Red Mariñas, were allegedly the ringleaders of the racket.

In the previous hearing, Chiong testified that P2,000 out of the P10,000 is divided among certain BI officers assigned at the Ninoy Aquino International Airport (NAIA). Hontiveros has expressed suspicion that the remaining P8,000 is divided among tour operators and BI’s higher-ups.

The senator said based on official BI figures presented to the committee in the previous hearing, about 1.8 million Chinese nationals have entered the country since 2016, which roughly agrees with Chiong’s claim that about 2,000 Chinese nationals enter the country every day.

She estimated that if 800,000 of those who entered were legitimate tourists, it would mean the total take from the alleged scheme in recent years would have amounted to about P10 billion.

Aguirre strongly denied the allegations and vowed to file new libel cases against Tulfo.

“The charges of Ramon Tulfo are absolute lies and complete fabrications. I was told that he was the only one saying that at the Senate. That even his so-called whistle-blower did not say what he was accusing me of,” Aguirre said.

The former justice chief added that he was willing to attend the next hearing “so I could refute them and tell Tulfo to his face that he is a liar.”

“I could face anybody for I am completely innocent of his charges,” Aguirre said.

Malacañang said the accusers of Aguirre should present evidence to prove their claims.

“They have allegations, right? So Mr. Tulfo, who was accusing him, should provide information to the proper authorities. Because unless you provide the authorities with any information, we will not investigate,” Panelo said in a chance interview yesterday.

“Unless you submit proof to us, or there is a formal complaint, we cannot do anything,” he added.

‘Threat to national security’

Hontiveros and Gordon reiterated that the influx of Chinese nationals as well as the proliferation of POGOs could pose a serious threat to national security.

Hontiveros warned that POGOs, which have abetted crimes like prostitution and kidnapping, could also be intelligence-gathering hubs for China.

She said China has the National Intelligence Law and the Counter Espionage Law that requires Chinese nationals or companies doing business in other countries to help in spying for their government.

“(Chinese nationals and companies) cannot refuse if they’re required (to spy),” Hontiveros said.

Inter-agency body

Meanwhile, the Bureau of Customs (BOC) is pushing for the creation of an inter-agency body that will be tasked to oversee the entry of foreign currency into the country through its airports, the Department of Finance (DOF) said yesterday.

Customs Commissioner Rey Leonardo Guerrero recommended the formation of the group to Finance Secretary Carlos Dominguez III after reporting various incidences of suspected syndicates bringing in large sums of foreign currency into the country.

The task force will oversee the entry of foreign currencies into the Philippines and recommend measures to deter the use of these funds for illegal activities, according to Guerrero.

“Given the global threat of terrorism, organized crimes, money laundering and the possibility that such foreign currencies find their way to unlawful activities, it is respectfully recommended that an inter-agency body be established through a presidential directive, purposely organized to monitor the continuous inflow of foreign currencies by individual couriers, profile the personalities involved and the recipient thereof and recommend measures to ensure that such sums of money will not be used in any illegal trade or activities,” he said in a written report.

Citing data from the BOC’s Intelligence Group, the DOF said an estimated $370 million or around P18.74 billion was sneaked in to the country by two syndicates last year, identified as the “Rodriguez” and the “Chinese” groups.

Guerrero said backtracking and monitoring activities showed that the Rodriguez group smuggled $200.24 million or P10.18 billion through the Ninoy Aquino International Airport.

The Chinese group, on the other hand, brought in $167.97 million, or about P8.54 billion.

The commissioner added that the Rodriguez group had declared Excellent Forex Inc. as its recipient of the money, which entered the country from July 17 last year to last January, while the Chinese group brought in its stash from Dec. 17 last year to last January.

The BOC learned that the couriers of the money are paid between P12,000 and P50,000 per flight.

The Customs chief said these couriers travel twice or thrice a week and carry about one to two pieces of luggage, and are able to escape detection because they are escorted by members of the PNP, the Armed Forces of the Philippines or airport police at the Manila International Airport Authority (MIAA).

“Alarmed by the foregoing circumstances, considering the apparent intent of the said groups to bypass the country’s banking system and its prevailing regulations, this bureau coordinated with and brought the matter to the attention of the Anti-Money Laundering Council. Since then, this bureau and the AMLC remain in close communication regarding this concern. The NICA was likewise apprised of the facts,” Guerrero said.

He added that the BOC had also informed members of Congress about this concern “as possible basis for policy changes on the protocol to be observed regarding hand-carried foreign currencies passing through our airports.”

The BOC chief pointed out that the country’s laws on undeclared and under-declared foreign currencies are “not categorical, and sanctions provided are not deterrent enough,” unlike in other countries.

“Thus, it is not farfetched that the ease of bringing foreign currency in our territory can be taken advantage of by lawless elements such as terrorists,” Guerrero said.

Aside from the two syndicates, the BOC said it has filed a criminal complaint against a Filipino who was caught trying to bring in $700,000 on Nov. 26 last year. This case is now pending before the Office of the City Prosecutor in Pasay City.

The bureau also confiscated $501,600 on Sept. 21 last year from a Filipino who under-declared the amount of money he brought in. The forfeiture hearing on this case is ongoing at the Law Division of the BOC’s NAIA district. – With Emmanuel Tupas, Paolo Romero, Mary Grace Padin

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