IMMIGRATION officials and agents that operated the “pastillas” scam are also involved in the trafficking of Filipina overseas workers to Syria, two whistleblowers told a Senate committee hearing yesterday.
Allison Chiong, one of the BI agents who had spilled the beans on the pastillas scam, said the group headed by Bureau of Immigration (BI) officers Fidel Mendoza and Ervin Ortanez, was behind the seamless exit of Syria-bound Filipinas for P50,000 each.
The immigration agents, according to Chiong, work in cahoots with other BI personnel, some airline visa readers and scheming recruitment agencies.
Chiong’s statement was backed by Dale Ignacio, also a BI agent.
During yesterday’s virtual hearing by the Senate committee on women, Chiong said he learned of the modus operandi when he was still an active member of the pastillas scam syndicate, which facilitated the easy entry of Chinese tourists into the country for a minimum amount of P10,000 each.
Chiong said the corrupt immigration officers meet with illegal recruiters either at the SM Mall of Asia or any fastfood restaurant in Baclaran where the bribe money of P50,000 per head is paid.
When the Filipina workers arrive at the airport on their scheduled departure dates, they are escorted by members of the syndicate to immigration counters where they are “interviewed” by their cohorts. Chiong said airline visa readers were also paid for the smooth check-in of the women.
From there, Chiong said the women will then be escorted by agents of the BI’s intelligence unit to the boarding gates. Agents from the Travel Control Enforcement Unit (TCEU) escort the women for their final boarding.
To substantiate his claims, Chiong showed screenshots of Viber group messages which showed the names of the passengers, flight details, and initials of the recruiters who endorsed the women.
He said the endorsement usually came from “FM” or Fidel Mendoza, the right-hand man of Red Mariñas who was the supposed mastermind of the pastillas scam; and EO or Ervin Ortanez.
Sen. Risa Hontiveros, Senate committee chairwoman, said she has gotten hold of the names of the BI officers who stamped the passports of the trafficked women, and these include Mark Darwin Talha, Nerisa Pineda, John Michael Angeles, and Ervin Ortanez.
Hontiveros said Angeles was one of the 86 BI officers charged by the National Bureau of Investigation in November 2020 for the pastillas scam, while Ortanez is the son of Mariñas.
“Same cast of characters, different crime,” Hontiveros said.
The Senate panel’s hearing was a continuation of the investigation held last week when three trafficked Filipinas to Syria recounted their ordeals via an online interview by Hontiveros’ staff. The narrative was attested by three other trafficked women to Syria in a recorded interview.
According to the Filipina workers, they each paid P50,000 for their employment to Dubai, United Arab Emirates where they were supposed to get $400 a month as salary. But instead of Dubai, the women said they were sold to different employers in Syria, where a government-imposed deployment ban has been in effect since 2011. Their salaries, they said, was only $200 a month.
In the interviews, the women claimed their employers bought them from their recruiters for $5,000 to $10,000 each.
The victims have all been rescued and are now in the custody of the Philippine Embassy in Damascus.
Hontiveros reiterated the trafficking of women must be stopped.
“We need to crack down on the human trafficking operation in the Bureau of Immigration. This is an outright violation of the Anti-Trafficking in Persons Act. The names found to be involved in this crime will be sentenced to life imprisonment,” she said.
Sen. Joel Villanueva, Senate labor committee chair, said there is a need to have bilateral labor agreements with host countries to prevent Filipino jobseekers from falling prey to human trafficking syndicates.
He said having the agreements with the host countries can also allow our officials to rescue trafficked Filipinas, since under the present set up, the Philippine government must pay from $5,000 to $10,000 to buy out the contracts of OFWs.
Charge d’affaires Vida Soraya Verzosa said the Philippine Embassy in Dasmacus has stopped the practice of buying out contracts and instead has been working with the Syrian government on handling the situation of trafficked Filipino workers.