BY RAYMOND AFRICA and Jocelyn Montemayor
A FRONTLINE immigration officer yesterday named at least nine past and current officials of the Bureau of Immigration (BI) who were reportedly behind the “pastillas” scheme that facilitates hassle-free visa and immigration processes supposedly for high-roller Chinese casino players and tourists.
Allison Chiong, who has been Immigration Officer 1 since 2012, told a Senate hearing that the money-making scheme was led by airport immigration officials and involved at least 90 percent of immigration personnel.
The Senate hearing was led by Sen. Risa Hontiveros, chairwoman of the Senate committee on women, children, family relations, and gender equality.
In his affidavit, Chiong claimed he “personally witnessed various illegal transactions over the years involving extortion money in exchange of unimpeded passage through the Philippines, whether leaving or entering the country.”
Chiong admitted he was part of the illegal scheme and accepted a portion of the loot earned from collecting at least P10,000 each from Chinese tourists for VIP treatment in the processing of their upon arrival visas.
Aside from confirming the pastillas scheme, Chiong also bared there was a “special arrangement,” or VVIP system, for the entry of Chinese fugitives to Manila for at least five times the grease money paid under the pastillas modus.
Chiong claimed those who were blacklisted or had criminal records are allowed to freely enter the country.
“From what I have heard, it ranges about P50,000 to P200,000 per daan (passage). Kapag high profile, milyon-milyon po ‘yun (If they are high profile, they pay in the millions of pesos),” Chiong told senators.
Immigration data show that 324 of the 423 international criminals apprehended in local ports were Chinese.
He said he did not get any kickback from the VVIP deal.
Chiong said immigration personnel started with the money-making scheme to offset lost earnings after the Department of Justice (DOJ) scrapped the overtime pay of all immigration officers in 2016. The BI is an agency under the DoJ.
“To cope with the substantial deduction of their salaries, some immigration officers decided to offer VIP services for immigrants who are casino high-rollers. This VIP service involved immigrations officers accepting P2,000 for each high-roller in exchange for the latter’s convenient and seamless immigration,” Chiong said.
Sensing the operation was “lucrative, Chiong alleged BI-Travel Control Enforcement Unit chiefs Bien Guevarra, Glenn Comia, and Den Binsol, who all worked under Red Marinas, former chief of the Ports Operation Division, decided to take over the operation.
He said Guevarra, Comia, and Binsol were relieved from their former posts in the middle of 2019 but still continued to maintain the syndicate’s operations. Marinas, on the other hand, was formerly assigned as BI associate commissioner but later resigned to run as mayor of Muntinlupa City.
Chiong said news of the illegal operation spread fast which prompted “other syndicated groups” in the BI to submit their own list of Chinese tourists who wanted to avail of the easy entry with a fee scheme.
Chiong identified the heads of the “other syndicated groups” as Totoy Magbuhos, Deon Albao, Paul Borja, Anthony Lopez, and Dennis Robles, who supposedly hold various plantilla positions with the BI.
Chiong alleged that Binsol, assisted by his staff, were behind the VVIP arrangement.
He claimed Binsol’s staff would stand behind an immigration officer’s counter at the airport holding a picture and name. Once the client arrives, the Chinese fugitive would be ushered through the immigration gates without having their passports scanned. A similar deal can be arranged for the during departure, he added.
Chiong said the “syndicate” created a Viber chat group so that its members can post the particulars of a Chinese tourist wanting to easily enter the country. He said the information was forwarded to the chat group by their counterparts in China.
He said the Viber chat group was deleted after agents of the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) started an investigation into the escort modus.
To avoid being noticed by the NBI agents, Chiong said immigration officers involved in the operation will escort each Chinese tourist to the TCEU holding area where his or her name will be verified if he or she is included in the master list.
The scheme, however, did not last long.
Chiong said a new Viber chat group was again created so corrupt personnel can revert to their former modus operandi.
“Each cooperating immigration officer would receive around P20,000 weekly for Terminal 1 duties and P8,000 weekly for Terminal 3 duties… Someone among the group would shout ‘It’s pastillas time’ each time the money is already divided,” Chiong narrated.
“The influence of these Chinese organizations and personalities became more apparent when they started providing immigration officers free lunch meals wrapped in Chinese newspapers. However, this recently stopped due to the travel ban on incoming Chinese nationals due to the novel coronavirus,” he added.
Chiong said he mustered the courage to expose the illegal schemes after two witnesses, alias Carina and Lai Yu Cian, gave testimonies to the Senate about the abuses that they suffered in the hands of Chinese operators of Philippine Offshore Gaming Operations (POGOs).
“Carina” was the prostitute rescued by law enforcers in a den that caters to Chinese POGO employees, while Lai was the 21-year-old Taiwanese rescued by the National Bureau of Immigration after she was forced to work in a POGO outlet based in Makati.
“When I saw on television the live broadcast of the Senate hearing chaired by Sen. Risa Hontiveros regarding the rise of POGO-related prostitution and heard (the) discussion of the possible involvement of the Bureau of Immigration, I was compelled to come forward and share what I know based on my personal knowledge as a frontline immigration officer,” Chiong said.
Grifton Medina, BI port operations division chief, reiterated he was not aware of the illegal operations.
Hontiveros refused to accept Medina’s claims.
BI commissioner Jaime Morente said he cannot immediately act on the erring officers because he has no power to fire or hire employees who hold plantilla positions, a statement Hontiveros said was “totally unacceptable.”
“We need to update the BI law since it was in 1940 when this law was crafted,” she said.
Hontiveros said she will endorse Chiong to be placed under the protective custody of the DOJ’s Witness Protection Program.
President Duterte on Thursday night said he has “terminated” 83 BI personnel due to corruption, as he again warned those in government not to “tempt the Gods.”
The President, during the graduation of 112 police officials who undertook the Public Safety Basic Advance and Basic Courses held in Davao City, said despite efforts of Morente to rid the bureau of corruption, “hindi niya kaya (he cannot do it).”
“Kahapon, I terminated all sa kay Morente. Apparently, si Morente, mahal ko iyan kasi chief of police ko iyan, mabait iyan, pero hindi niya kaya, limitado rin (Yesterday, I terminated all with Morente. Apparently, Morente, I love him because he is chief of police, he is a good guy, but he cannot do it, he has his limitations),” he said.
Prior to Dutete’s speech, his legal counsel and spokesman and Salvador Panelo had already announced in Malacañang the relief of all BI officials and employees involved in the pastillas modus.
Panelo said the President issued the order Wednesday night as he viewed modus as a grave form of corruption.
Duterte, in his speech reaffirmed his commitment to rid the government of corruption as well as reiterated his commitment to address the problems of illegal drugs and criminality.
He said that apart from relieving the BI members, “with the end view of dismissal,” they would also be charged accordingly.
“Iyung sa customs, 83 of them, are dismissed. So do not tempt the gods… it’s just a figure of speech, do not tempt the gods. Do your work, I will protect you, stay aligned,” the President said.
BI spokesperson Dana Krizia Sandoval said 18 immigration officials mentioned during the Senate hearing have been relieved from their positions.
“In compliance with the directive of the President, we are immediately relieving the services of 18 immigration personnel mentioned during today’s Senate hearing on the pastillas scheme,” Sandoval said.
Chiong only mentioned nine names.
Sandoval said the bureau is alarmed by the revelations in the Senate inquiry.
“We are not taking this lightly. The expose by Immigration Officer Alex Chiong is deeply alarming and we will ensure that we will take every measure to destroy this system of corruption, and impose the harshest penalties to erring personnel,” she said, stressing: “Corruption has no place in the bureau.”
Morente has earlier sacked five immigration officials including the terminal heads and of the travel and control enforcement unit in NAIA following the disclosure of the pastillas modus.
Morente also created a fact-finding committee headed by Deputy Commissioner Tobias Javier to dig deeper into the allegation.
Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra said his office is closely monitoring the BI’s probe. – With and Ashzel Hachero