FOR a “service fee” of P10,000 each, corrupt immigration agents at the country’s airports indulge Chinese tourists with hassle-free processing of their entry visas to the country, Sen. Risa Hontiveros exposed on Monday.
Hontiveros, chairwoman of the Senate committee on women, children, family relations and gender equality, said the “pastillas” modus within the Bureau of Immigration (BI) was a scheme supposedly centralized by agency ranking officials where Chinese tourists are allowed seamless entry into the country in exchange for P10,000.
During a committee hearing investigating the link of the boom of Philippine Offshore Gaming Operators (POGOs) to prostitution and trafficking in the country, Hontiveros presented a video footage showing a group of Chinese tourists being escorted allegedly by immigration personnel, and screenshots of Viber group chats of immigration officials showing the names of Chinese tourists who will be escorted and their flight details.
Citing information shared by a supposed informant, Hontiveros said the modus operandi was called pastillas because the service fee payments were initially wrapped in white bond papers to make it appear like the local delicacy pastillas or milk-based sweets usually served as a dessert.
The service fee, she said, was a guarantee to tourists of an easy time in securing their visas upon entry to the country.
Of the P10,000 fee, Hontiveros said P2,000 is distributed to BI agents in airports, while the balance of P8,000 goes to ranking immigration officials and their cohorts.
“Sa sampung libo, dalawang libo ang nakakarating sa ating mga airport (agents), pinaghahatian sa level ng airport. Nasaan ‘yung P8,000? Ayon sa aming informant, distributed na bago pa man makarating sa airport: sa Chinese tour operator, sa ka-kontratang local tour operator, sa sindikatong mag-da-downstream sa airport (Of the P10,000 paid by Chinese tourists, only P2,000 are divided among BI airport personnel.
Where does the P8,000 go ? According to our informant, it is distributed among Chinese tour operators, local tour operators, and the syndicate which handles the Chinese tourists in the airports),” she said.
She added immigration officials were also frequently treated to free lunch by Chinese companies in exchange for the favor of being lax with Chinese tourists arriving in the country.
Hontiveros claimed the pastillas scheme has emboldened more Chinese to come to the country as tourists and once here, they proceed to work at POGO outlets.
“Ayon sa aming informant, mas lumakas ang ganitong modus dahil sa libu-libong mga POGO workers na dumarating sa bansa araw-araw (Our informant said the modus is now flourishing because of the entry of thousands of POGO workers on a daily basis),” she said.
POGOs, she reiterated, were the reason why illegal activities such as prostitution, kidnapping, and trafficking have become more rampant in the country.
BI ON SCHEME: UNBELIEVABLE
In a previous Senate hearing in January, the immigration bureau said that 1.8 million Chinese have entered the country in recent years, or roughly around 2,000 Chinese tourists who enter the country daily.
Hontiveros said that of the figure, 800,000 are actual tourists or students, while the remaining one million are now working as POGO workers.
BI deputy commissioner Tobias Javier claimed it was the first time that he heard of the pastillas system in airports all over the country.
This was echoed by Grifton Media, BI port of operations head.
Hontiveros did not buy the BI officials’ statements of disbelief.
“I am sorry. Hindi talaga kapani-paniwala na hindi alam ng mga BI officials ito. Kung hindi man kayo sangkot, again I’m sorry, natutulog lang kayo sa pansitan
(I am sorry but I find it hard to believe that BI officials are not aware of these illegal activities. If you are not involved, again I am sorry, it only shows that you have been sleeping on your jobs),” the senator said.
“Hindi pwedeng nagiging pugad tayo ng krimen dahil ginawa ng welcome committee ang Bureau of Immigration natin ng mga Chinese nationals na ang karaniwan ay POGO workers (We cannot allow our country to be the haven of criminal activities because our Bureau of Immigration has become the welcome committee of these Chinese nationals who mostly work in POGOs),” she said.
In a statement, Hontiveros said that around a billion pesos may have already been disbursed as kickbacks to corrupt officials.
“Somebody sold our country’s borders for Chinese money. The lion’s share goes to the bosses. Somebody rigged the system, centralized the operations, and made this into a billion-peso enterprise. Pinapapasok ang mga Chinese kapalit ng pera (They allow the entry of Chinese in exchange for money), effectively making us borderless,” she said.
Asked to comment on Hontiveros’ expose, BI spokesperson Dana Krizia Sandoval said Commissioner Jaime Morente has ordered a full-blown investigation into the so-called pastillas scheme.
“Commissioner Jaime Morente is deeply alarmed at the exposés of the good Sen. Risa Hontiveros in today’s Senate hearing. He has ordered a full-blown investigation to identify those who are possibly part of this syndicate to file both administrative criminal cases against them,” Sandoval said.
She said the bureau will coordinate with the office of Hontiveros and the Department of Justice to ensure that erring immigration personnel are held liable.
The BI is one of the agencies attached to the DOJ.
Justice Undersecretary Markk Perete said they will closely monitor the BI’s investigation.
“We understand that the Office of the Commissioner of (the) immigration (bureau) will initiate its own investigation on the matter. The department will closely monitor and supervise this investigation to ensure that those responsible will be held to account,” Perete said. – With Ahzel Hachero