A curious case

COMMONSENSE - Marichu A. Villanueva - The Philippine Star

In the course of investigation, Mayor Guo’s dubious records emerged.

Curiouser and curiouser” to borrow the famous exclamation from the Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. This could best describe the surprise of President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. (PBBM) when he was asked if he knows anything about the now controversial Bamban municipal mayor Alice Guo. Last Thursday, PBBM candidly remarked no single politician from Tarlac knows Mayor Guo. 

In fact, PBBM revealed that government authorities have been investigating Guo for some time already after a raid of an “online scamming hub” initially reported operating inside a ten-hectare compound. She owned the Baofu Land Development that leased the compound where 32 building structures overlooking the municipal office of the Bamban Mayor is located just a few kilometers away. 

Mayor Guo earned national prominence – or should I say infamy – in the aftermath of the raid of an establishment being run as a licensed Philippine Online Gaming Operator (POGO) inside the Baofu compound last March 13. Guo claimed she sold her shares from Baofu. Before her mayorship, she allegedly facilitated the local permits of Hongsheng Gaming Technology Inc. that got raided in February last year.

A total of 167 Chinese nationals who worked for the POGO firm Zun Yuan Technology Inc. that took over from Hongsheng were deported last week and flown back to Pudong, China. They were all found without valid working permits in violation of their visa entry here.  

Actually, Zuan has a POGO permit from the Philippine Amusement and Gaming Corp. (Pagcor) but was reported doing other business outside its license. After the raid by the Presidential Anti-Organized Crime Commission (PAOCC), it was proven to be doubling as “scam” hub. Pagcor subsequently revoked the license of Zuan. 

The PAOCC raid actually took off from a tip by one of the Vietnamese among the more than 400 or so foreign nationals working at the Baofu compound. The Vietnamese national safely escaped and sought the help of our local police. 

Aside from the “scam hub” operations inside the compound, the PAOCC chief, retired Police General Gilberto Cruz, disclosed they discovered from the raid several other criminal activities. The PAOCC-led raiding teams have unlocked underground “torture chambers,” a “panic room” that has closed-circuit TV system of cameras installed around the compound, vaults that contain millions of pesos and dollars as well as passports, mostly of the Chinese POGO workers. Various criminal charges against those caught inside the compound as registered owners have been filed.

In the course of investigation, Mayor Guo’s dubious records emerged.

Acting on PBBM’s remarks, Department of the Interior and Local Government (DILG) Secretary Benhur Abalos Jr. recommended last Friday before the Office of the Ombudsman a preventive suspension against Mayor Guo. The DILG Secretary is the head of this agency that oversees all local government units (LGUs). 

In his recommendations, Abalos invoked Section 61 of Republic Act (RA) 6770, or the Local Government Code of the Philippines which stated, among other things, the Office of the President (OP) cannot directly suspend elective officials of municipalities. For such officials, suspension may be issued either by the Ombudsman under Sec. 21 of RA 6770, or by the Provincial Sanggunian under Sec.61.b of the Provincial Sanggunian. However, the decision of the Sanggunian is appealable to the OP, Abalos pointed out.

As the Chief Executive of the land, PBBM will have to wait for these government agencies as well as these LGU bodies to act on the specific case or cases involving Mayor Guo. As of this writing, Mayor Guo has no graft case at the Ombudsman nor any criminal charges yet filed. 

As early as April 5, Abalos ordered the creation of a task force initially created to investigate the Bamban POGO. On April 10, Executive Secretary Lucas Bersamin directed the Anti-Money Laundering Council to freeze and preserve the entire compound, including other assets of this POGO hub.

From Google search, Bamban is identified as a second class municipality in the province of Tarlac. According to the 2020 census, it has a population of 78,260 people. The municipality is located at the southernmost of Tarlac. Bamban is about 99 kilometers away from Manila.

On May 7, the Senate committee on women, children, family relations and gender equality chaired by Sen. Risa Hontiveros, first conducted the public hearing on five related Senate Resolutions, three of which were filed by Sen. Sherwin Gatchalian. Involving allegedly an internet gaming licensee of Pagcor, Gatchalian sought inquiry in aid of legislation on the reported cyber fraud operations, human trafficking, serious illegal detention, and physical abuse and torture in POGO hubs. 

The Senate committee on ways and means, which Gatchalian chairs, has also joined the Senate inquiry on the POGO operations, including the alleged involvement of the Bamban Mayor. Attending the Senate hearing,
Mayor Guo denied her involvement in POGO operations. Her evasive answers about her childhood, including where she was born and her education, raised more suspicions than answers. Responding at times in clear Tagalog, she claimed being “supported by the administration” candidate when she won in the May 2022 elections. 

Gatchalian warned against the emerging dangers of “POGO-politics,” on top of “narco-politics.” This refer to those who win in the elections through patronage of the POGO and illegal drugs trafficking syndicates. 

On May 10, Abalos further ordered the DILG task force to also conduct fact-finding on the concerns regarding the citizenship and eligibility for public office of 35-year-old first termer Mayor Guo. The Office of the Solicitor General has initiated actions on a possible quo warranto case to be filed in court against Guo, if she is “illegally or exercising a public office.”

As a former Tarlac Congressman for three-consecutive terms in the past, National Defense Secretary Gilberto “Gibo” Teodoro Jr. swore he never crossed paths with Mayor Guo in their home province. Teodoro raised concerns over the reported influx into the country of what he called as “pekeng Pinoy,” or fake Filipinos.         

Teodoro holds “local governance” as an issue on how the Bamban POGO has long been running its illegal activities until it was raided. Curiously, as Alice in Wonderland exclaimed.

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