DILG chief fears illegal POGOs may fund 2025 elections

Bella Cariaso - The Philippine Star
DILG chief fears illegal POGOs may fund 2025 elections
Police inspect one of 46 buildings at an illegal Philippine offshore gaming operator hub in Porac, Pampanga yesterday. Sen. Sherwin Gatchalian conducted the ocular inspection, accompanied by members of the Presidential Anti-Organized Crime Commission and Criminal Investigation and Detection Group.
Jesse Bustos

Interior Secretary Benhur Abalos yesterday warned that illegal Philippine offshore gaming operators could fund candidates for the 2025 elections amid the discovery of POGO hubs in Bamban, Tarlac and in Porac, Pampanga as well as the alleged direct involvement of suspended Mayor Alice Guo in the questionable activities.

“There could always be that possibility of illegal means, illegal POGO, illegal jueteng or illegal e-sabong and worse, even illegal drugs, narco politics. All of these things could possibly affect an election,” Abalos told a press conference at Camp Crame in Quezon City as he reiterated his warning against local government executives who will allow the operation of illegal POGO in their areas.

Abalos said the Department of the Interior and Local Government (DILG) and Philippine National Police (PNP) have intensified the campaign against POGO to prevent the election of politicians involved in illegal activities.

“All of these things, whether we like it or not, this illegal money is being used to prop up candidates,” Abalos said as he noted that the Philippine Amusement and Gaming Corp. (Pagcor) only authorized the operation of 43 POGOs in Metro Manila and Cavite.

The DILG chief also said that the Office of the Ombudsman and Sangguniang Panlalawigan have the authority to suspend officials involved in illegal POGOs like the one “being done in Pampanga by Vice Gov. (Lilia) Pineda.”

Nineteen mayors in Pampanga, through its chapter of the League of Municipalities of the Philippines, issued a resolution opposing the operation of POGO in their jurisdictions. They also called on the national government and regulatory agencies, including Pagcor, to enforce regulations and oversight.

The 19 local chiefs also asked for an immediate moratorium on new POGO licenses in Pampanga until comprehensive measures address the associated risks.

According to Abalos, the criminal aspect of the POGO cases is being handled by the Criminal Investigation and Detection Group (CIDG) with the Presidential Anti-Organized Crime Commission (PAOCC) acting as co-complainant.

“We have a task force to check if it has a mayor’s permit or none as the statements are conflicting. Remember two years ago, I led the raid of Lucky South 99 in Angeles… so I was surprised how come it was the same company in Porac,” he said.

Guo also connected to Porac hub?

Sen. Sherwin Gatchalian, who conducted an ocular inspection at Lucky South 99 POGO hub with PAOCC officials, led by Undersecretary Gilbert Cruz, said Bamban Mayor Guo may also have connections with the POGO hub in Porac, Pampanga.

“Based on the information, she has a connection here (POGOs), we can’t just divulge the details right now as the investigation is still ongoing… I can only say that the people she talked to were also seen here in this POGO. That’s the link that we are seeing,” Gatchalian said.

Cruz showed Gatchalian and members of the media three POGO buildings earlier raided by PAOCC.

“My first impression is that we have seen that this is the most brutal, violent, and largest (hub) we have ever been to. The evidence is really strong that there was torture, there was prostitution and they found a passport,” Gatchalian said.

Gatchalian also inspected the building where the employees stay and another where a KTV bar was located. The KTV building had many rooms on the second floor and where prostitution is suspected.

He added that the Bamban POGO hub could be connected with the raided POGO in Porac as these were both built from 2019 to 2022.

“Why were they able to build a facility where construction is prohibited? So, we can’t say now what the details of the links are, but it definitely has links to Bamban and Porac and other Pogo,” said the senator. “Because they are syndicates, they can set up a lot, we just can’t say now because it is still under investigation... the mastermind is in all the Pogo hubs.”

Gatchalian expressed disappointment that the local government unit (LGU) failed to inspect the POGO hub, even if they had the power to do so.

“My first question is how did it get into the LGU and barangay? The mayor has broad powers to inspect sanitation, electrical and general welfare of the public,” he added, noting that a mayor could not just claim innocence.

In a separate interview, PAOCC spokesman Winston Casio detailed the digital and paper trails that have increasingly implicated Guo in two scam farms raided by authorities.

“Her participation in Baofu is quite clear, and connections between Baofu and Lucky South 99 are becoming more evident as we review more documents,” Casio said on Bagong Pilipinas Ngayon.

Documents obtained from Pagcor and Baofu Land Development suggest that the mayor’s involvement extends beyond land transactions as it already borders on operational activities.

Casio indicated that the evidence supports the theory that the Bamban and Porac scam farms are branches of the same criminal organization involving the mayor’s family.

On Friday, Guo was charged with qualified human trafficking under Republic Act 9208. Additional charges are being prepared with submission to the Department of Justice expected in the coming week.

Another person of interest, Catherine Cassandra Lee Ong, has emerged in the investigation.

“Documents and applications filed with Pagcor under her name and her visible presence with the mayor during the Bamban mayoral campaign suggest substantial involvement,” Casio said, adding that numerous links between Ong and Guo have been discovered.

Casio also reported on Zhang Jie, a manager of the POGO in Porac, who was intercepted at Davao International Airport while attempting to leave the country.

“She was positively identified by witnesses and is being returned to Manila for detention at the Bureau of Immigration facility in Bicutan, Taguig,” Casio confirmed, adding that PAOCC is monitoring at least 12 to 14 persons of interest, including the Guo family and their business associates.

“While an immigration lookout bulletin order has not yet been issued, alerts are in place to prevent their departure from the Philippines,” Casio said.

PNP probes police connection

Meanwhile, the PNP launched a probe yesterday into the accountability of the Central Luzon regional police director in connection with illegal POGOs.

PNP chief Gen. Rommel Francisco Marbil confirmed that Central Luzon police director Brig. Gen. Jose Hidalgo would be investigated due to the number of POGO-related incidents in the region.

“We have issued warnings to police officers involved with POGOs, especially in areas like Bamban and Porac, where there are indications of possible police involvement,” Marbil said in Filipino during a press briefing at Camp Crame.

The PNP chief refrained from using the term “protector,” but noted that the circumstances warranted an investigation to determine whether it was a simple oversight, in the case of Hidalgo, or inefficiencies in the organization that contributed to these issues.

Marbil cited specific issues in Porac where the provincial director and the town’s chief of police were relieved due to a series of unresolved killings, including the deaths of foreigners. He also mentioned discovery of unidentified bodies that led to the removal of several police officers in Bamban town.

“These incidents should have been thoroughly investigated. Their failure to do so raised concerns,” Marbil said as he emphasized the importance of accountability and efficient police work, particularly in regions where illegal POGOs operate.

He added that the PNP is also coordinating with Pagcor, the regulatory body for gaming, highlighting the need for inter-agency cooperation.

“Scam farms primarily victimize people abroad, which makes it difficult for us to receive complaints locally. However, the discovery of illegal aliens and unexplained deaths led us to these operations,” Marbil explained.

Pagcor, in a press statement yesterday, said the country’s integrated resorts and casinos remain as one of the main growth drivers of local tourism, creating a multiplier effect across various industries.

Ma. Vina Claudette Oca, Pagcor assistant vice president for gaming licensing and development, said during a panel discussion at the 1st Philippine Tourism and Hotel Investment Summit held over the weekend that casinos are just a small component of the many attractions offered by integrated resorts in the country.

She added that integrated casinos employ over 20,000 Filipinos, helping provide livelihood opportunities to locals.

Earlier, Pagcor chairman and CEO Alejandro Tengco said that POGOs are not the real enemies of the country but foreign crime syndicates – branded as AHaSS or alien hacking and scam syndicates.

Tengco said legitimate internet gaming licensees or IGLs, the recent acronym and nomenclature given to POGOs, generate funds for the government, contributing more than ?5 billion to Pagcor’s gross revenues in 2023. — Cecille Suerte Felipe, Mark Ernest Villeza, Ric Sapnu, Rainier Allan Ronda

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