HEADS rolled at the Bureau of Immigration (BI) as terminal heads at the Ninoy Aquino International Airport (NAIA) as well as the chief of the travel control and enforcement unit were relieved Tuesday following the exposé on the “pastillas” visa and escort scheme for Chinese tourists.
BI spokesperson Dana Krizia Sandoval said Immigration Commissioner Jaime Morente has likewise ordered a revamp of airport immigration personnel and directed the creation of a fact-finding committee to look into the revelations made by Sen. Risa Hontiveros during a Senate hearing on Monday.
The fact-finding committee will be headed by Deputy Commissioner Tobias Javier. It has 15 days to check the veracity of Hontiveros’ revelation and submit a report to Morente’s office.
“I have ordered a full-blown investigation to know if such corrupt practices still exist, and to find out who are possibly part of this syndicate to file both administrative and criminal cases against them. We are not taking this lightly,” Morente said, adding his office will coordinate with Hontiveros’ office to request more information regarding the issue.
Sandoval said the five officials were relieved for command responsibility
“Yesterday, following the exposé, immediately relieved were all the terminal heads as well as the head of the TCEU pending the result of the investigation,” she said but declined to identify the officials.
“It might be best to wait for the results of the investigation of the fact-finding committee,” she added when pressed.
Hontiveros on Monday divulged details of the so-called pastillas scheme, which she claimed involved corrupt airport immigration personnel working in connivance with travel and tour companies in the country, and which allegedly targeted Chinese workers who enter the country as tourists then later on get employed by Philippine Offshore Gaming Operators (POGO) outlets.
Hontiveros showed a video footage of a group of Chinese tourists being escorted by a supposed immigration agent and screenshots of group conversations on messaging platform Viber detailing names and flight details of Chinese tourists who have allegedly agreed to pay P10,000 each for easy processing of their upon-arrival visas.
Morente said relief of the NAIA terminal heads and the TCEU chief was part of the BI’s overall effort to check the senator’s allegation.
“I have also implemented an immediate and total revamp of our airport personnel, all terminal heads, and all travel control and enforcement unit heads. We will not take this sitting down. We will not hesitate to impose harsh penalties to those who are found to be committing corrupt practices,” Morente said.
Morente said that since he assumed the BI post, he has dismissed and suspended at least 70 immigration personnel for various offenses, while more than 200 cases have also been filed against erring personnel.
Last year, the BI denied entry to 7,724 foreign nationals as part of the bureau’s intensified drive against undesirable aliens.
During the Senate hearing on Monday, Javier told senators it was the first time that he heard of the pastillas scheme, a statement echoed by BI Port Operations Division chief Grifton Medina.
But yesterday, Morente said that even before Hontiveros’ disclosure, the BI had already requested the Department of Justice (DOJ) and the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) to probe alleged irregularities not only at NAIA but in other airports of the country, especially on the alleged escorting services offered by some unscrupulous immigration personnel.
Last January 22, Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra directed the NBI to conduct a case build-up on the alleged involvement of BI officials and personnel in human trafficking and escort services. The BI is an attached agency of the DOJ.
Sandoval said the scheme uncovered by Hontiveros could already be an “upgrade” of the scheme already investigated by the NBI.
“Bago itong mga detalye, bagong modus at parang upgrade ng scheme (These are new details, new modus and seemingly an upgrade to the previous scheme),” Sandoval said.
POGO SHUTDOWN PUSHED
On the heels of reports of illegal operations, tax evasion, and the proliferation of crimes, the Partido Manggagawa (PM) on Tuesday joined snowballing calls for the immediate shutdown of POGOs in the country.
In a statement, PM Secretary General Judy Ann Miranda: “History would tell us that high-end gambling operations, legal or not, are always accompanied by crimes especially against women as most of the victims of human trafficking, prostitution, and sexual abuse are women.”
“PM is adding its voice to the growing public clamor to shutdown the operations of POGOs in the country, both legal and illegal,” she added.
The labor leader noted how allowing the POGO operations to continue is tantamount to giving consent to the crimes committed in relation to the industry.
“Just because the current administration practices free trade among POGOs shouldn’t mean that they are also free to commit abuses,” said Miranda.
PM likewise said government should endeavor to save POGO workers regardless of their nationalities.
“The government must protect and save their workers, both foreign and local, from further injustice after having been victimized by human trafficking and other crimes committed against them by their recruiters and operators,” said Miranda. – With Gerard Naval