Criminalize POGOs

BAR NONE - Ian Manticajon - The Freeman

Gambling is supposed to be a menace to society, thus requiring a balancing act between prohibition and toleration. Prohibition means that most forms of gambling are considered illegal because they are seen as a corruption of public morals.

Toleration, on the other hand, involves making exceptions in the spirit of entertainment. This is why PAGCOR, the gambling authority in the country, is formally known as the “Philippine Amusement and Gaming Corporation,” emphasizing “amusement and gaming”, rather than “gambling”. Toleration also occurs in the guise of charity, as in the case of state lotteries designed to raise funds for charitable causes and other social welfare programs.

Yet gambling, one of society’s most persistent evils since time immemorial, always manages to rear its ugly head whenever even a small opening is made --even in the spirit of amusement and entertainment. Just visit any state-sanctioned gambling place or casino in this country, and the usual scene is not one of amusement or entertainment, but of faces glued to addiction and driven by a dopamine-pumping desire for a fast buck.

Recently, gambling has gone beyond personal addiction or the drive for easy and fast money; it has been considered a “national security concern”. This should not be surprising. Gambling has always been a threat to social stability and peace. Ask any country that wants to maintain social stability, especially those with stricter or authoritarian regimes where gambling is banned except for lotteries.

POGOs, or Philippine Offshore Gaming Operators, have been the talk of the town. The issue gained attention during a Senate investigation led by Senators Risa Hontiveros and Sherwin Gatchalian. Reports of POGO’s allegedly working with local criminal syndicates have alarmed the senators.

National security officials are also sounding the alarm on POGO’s, stopping short of classifying them as a national security threat. Defense Secretary Gilberto Teodoro Jr. on Wednesday described criminal syndicates posing as POGO hubs as national security concerns. National Security Adviser Eduardo Año clarified that the existence of POGO hubs of Chinese origin in the country does not yet pose a national security threat, but is already a national concern to be handled by the Philippine National Police. There have been a series of raids by authorities in Central Luzon against POGO hubs allegedly involved in illegal activities.

Some quarters see POGO’s as a Trojan horse, masquerading as a gift to the nation with their legitimate operations for foreign gamblers and as a source of billions of pesos in revenues for the government, contributing ?89 billion in taxes in 2022 alone and generating about 65,000 direct and indirect jobs for Filipinos. In reality, POGO’s appear to be a discrete, shady clique that could be used by our enemies to weaken our republic.

What are we waiting for in still not banning POGO’s? Why the hesitation in banning POGO’s despite obvious signs that they are slowly eroding our national fabric through the criminal activities surrounding them? Is it not enough that POGOs are now suspected of being used to corrupt local governments, the police, the courts, and all other essential facets of our republic?

Following moves in the Senate to ban all POGO’s, it is hoped that the House of Representatives will follow suit, as minority lawmakers have recently filed a bill that seeks to criminalize all POGO operations in the country. The bill was filed by the Makabayan bloc, led by Rep. France Castro of the ACT Teachers party-list. It seeks to revoke all licenses granted to POGO’s and local gaming agents engaged in offshore gaming operations. In a statement last Tuesday, Castro described POGO’s as a "social menace" and a source of "unimaginable corruption," citing their involvement in crimes such as money laundering, tax evasion, rape, murder, illegal recruitment, human trafficking, prostitution, illegal detention, and other offenses.

While it can be argued that gambling is a form of redistributive activity with particular benefits to the economy in terms of direct revenue, job creation, and tourism, its social cost is enormous, especially in loose regulatory regimes like the Philippines, where institutions of policy and law enforcement can easily be co-opted by criminal gangs and corrupt politicians.

Our regulatory framework governing POGO’s has been observed to be weak and ineffective. Even if we move to strengthen it through legislation, this will not stop attempts to co-opt our institutions with the temptations of money and influence that these POGO hubs bring.

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