THE government’s “soft” handling of cases involving foreigners, especially the Chinese, who engage in criminal acts while in the country has made the Philippines a haven for money launderers, Sen. Richard Gordon said on Wednesday.
Gordon, chairman of the Senate blue ribbon committee, said foreigners have been brazen in conducting their illegal activities in the country because the Duterte administration has been lenient with them.
“This (large-scale money laundering) should never have happened if the administration was not too soft on China. ‘Yan ang isang rason kung bakit sila nandito (that’s one of the reasons why they are here),” Gordon said.
He said the country is no longer a “viable” nation because corruption has been thriving in recent years. “We are now a ‘buyable’ country, not viable anymore,” he said.
Gordon on Tuesday took the Senate floor and disclosed that an estimated $447 million, or roughly P22.69 billion, in cash were easily brought into the country from September last year to February.
The senator, citing a report from the Bureau of Customs (BOC), said 47 individuals, most of them Chinese, brought in thousands of dollars in cash in suitcases. The couriers flew in from either Hong Kong or Singapore, which have no foreign currency control as they are free ports.
Gordon said the dollars brought into the country could have been used to finance the operations of Philippine Offshore Gaming Operations (POGO) hubs, and even destabilization efforts against the government.
Gordon bewailed that while the entry of huge cash was reported by the BOC to the Anti-Money Laundering Council (AMLC), no action was taken to trace how the money was spent or where they went.
“This is very alarming, Hindi natin alam saan talaga galing ang pera at saan dadalhin, ni hindi namo-monitor kung nasaan ang mga taong ito (We don’t know where the money came from and where it will be used. We could not even monitor where these people are.
The funds could allow syndicates to thrive and perpetuate criminality),” he said.
Senate minority leader Franklin Drilon shared Gordon’s sentiment that the country has become a “laundromat” for dirty money.
“Ginagawa tayong labandera. ‘Yung ating banking system, financial system in general, ay ginagawang washing machine kung saan ‘yung maruruming pera na kung saan-saang panig ng mundo nanggaling ay dinadala dito sa bansa at ipapasok sa casino o bangko o kung saan man at paglabas ay malinis na (We have been turned into laundromats. Our banking system, financial system in general have been turned into washing machines where they wash dirty money that came from different parts of the world, use these in casinos or put them in banks so they will become clean),” Drilon said.
ROOT OF EVIL: POGOS
Drilon said the country’s becoming a haven for dirty money has become possible because of the proliferation of POGOs in the country.
“What is happening in our country is apparently rooted in the very presence of POGOs run by the Chinese. If there were no POGOs, all of these nefarious activities would have no purpose,” Drilon said.
“All of what [was] exposed in this chamber, the shenanigans of what we see here, all happened because of the policy decision to allow overseas gaming operations in our country. It is about time that we should examine this policy. We are a policy-making body.
Should we continue this policy of allowing overseas gaming in the country with all the illicit activities that come with it?” he added.
Sen. Risa Hontiveros said President Duterte should now take a look at the continued operations of POGOs in the country.
“I think the President, the executive, should overall pay attention to Chinese aggression in its forms,” Hontiveros said, adding the President should come up with a strong policy statement regarding POGOs.
Hontiveros likewise pushed concerned government agencies to trace all criminal elements and blacklisted fugitives who have entered the country through the POGOs.
“Deport these criminals. Filipinos’ safety comes first,” she said.
Hontiveros, who chairs the Senate Committee on Women, alleged that tour operators have been offering manufactured Philippine birth certificates and passports to Chinese nationals.
These tour operators, she added, were part of the Bureau of Immigration’s “pastillas” bribery scam.
“Napag-alaman natin na parte din ng pastillas scam ang VIP treatment of blacklisted fugitives (We have also found out that the pastillas scam also included VIP treatment for blacklisted fugitives). These criminals pay more than the P10,000 ‘service fee’ and are allowed entry into the Philippines,” she said.
“POGO is a big mess,” she said. “Ilang beses ko na sinabi ito, pero kailangan ulitin (I have said this so many times and I will repeat it again): POGO brings in crimes. Hulihin na ang mga blacklisted, ang mga sangkot sa money laundering, at anumang krimen (Arrest those who have been blacklisted, those involved in money laundering, and other crimes).They need to be deported immediately,” she added.
LIFT BANK SECRECY
Finance officials of the Duterte government renewed their push for the absolute lifting of the bank secrecy in the country in connection with the tax evasion cases and other nefarious activities, including money laundering, linked to the operation of POGOs.
Finance Assistant Secretary Tony Lambino, in a briefing in Malacañang, said the government wants to find out where the “massive amounts” were being used.
“We would like to maybe propose that again, that we lift absolute bank secrecy in the Philippines in cases of tax fraud or other nefarious activities para po ma-trace po talaga natin, kung mayroon po tayong hinala na malakas, mabuksan po natin ang mga bank accounts (We would like to propose again that we lift absolute bank secrecy in the Philippines in cases of tax fraud or other nefarious activities so we can truly trace it, and if there are strong suspicions, we can open the bank accounts),” he said.
Lambino said the lifting of the bank secrecy was originally included in the Tax Reform for Acceleration and Inclusion (TRAIN) bill but was removed during congressional deliberations and no longer restored when the law was passed.
The Department of Finance (DOF) re-introduced the lifting of bank secrecy in the draft tax amnesty bill but this, too, was removed during congressional deliberations.
“We will work with Congress to ask that these tools (bank secrecy), be included in our arsenal for addressing these challenges in these problems,” Lambino said.
The Department of Justice said it is now coordinating with the AMLC to look into the alleged money-laundering activities involving Chinese nationals.
“We have coordinated with the Anti-Money Laundering Council to make sure that the matter is looked into, and if there are appropriate complaints, we have told them that we are ready to help them pursue these cases,” Justice Undersecretary Adrian Ferdinand Sugay told reporters.
Asked if a moto propio investigation can be undertaken, Sugay said there is a need for a complaint to be filed first.
“We have to wait for the complaint,” he said.
Sugay said that if the complaint, once there is filed, will be proven true, whoever will be found guilty of engaging in money laundering activities, whether they are Filipinos or foreigners, will be duly held accountable under the Anti-Money Laundering Act.
He said assets of money launderers can also be seized by the government.
National Bureau of Investigation Deputy Director Ferdinand Lavin said the agency has started its own investigation into the alleged money laundering activities and has already coordinated with the concerned government agencies.
“That’s being looked into, together with the Bureau of Internal Revenue and the AMLC” Lavin said. – With Jocelyn Montemayor and Ashzel Hachero