Something fishy in deluge of millions

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    REP. Joey Salceda of Albay has reason to be aghast. He is outraged that the Anti-Money Laundering Council, the Bureau of Customs, and even the Bureau of Immigration, the Philippine National Police and the Ninoy Aquino International Airport have failed to raise the red flag on the entry of hundreds of thousands of US dollars, Hong Kong dollars and other foreign currencies into the Philippines. With the contraband reaching $1 billion in recent months, it should be plain to see for our government officials that this is dirty money coming in to be washed.

    It is a fact that visitors may bring in more than $10,000 to the country provided this is officially declared. But according to Congressman Salceda, only 1,015 tourists declared to have brought in more than $10,000 out of the 12 million foreign arrivals in year 2019.

    Salceda’s sources say of this total declared foreign currency, P28.6 billion worth was brought in by only four groups – Philippine Offshore Gaming Operators (POGOs), Singaporean group, Chinese group, and the Rodriguez group. Although declared, and thus legal, it is anomalous that authorities did not even ask the origin of the bulk funds, and where the couriers or financiers intended to use them. Also, did our airport, immigration and customs personnel at the points of entry care to ask why such big amounts were carried in bags and luggage, and not transferred through the banking system?

    The congressman from Albay noted that various government agencies such as the BOC, AMLC, BI, National Intelligence Coordinating Agency (NICA), PNP Criminal Investigation and Detection Group, and NBI were unanimous in their belief that money laundering is the principal reason why these funds are here, and would probably fly out as fast are they arrived, of course after a speedy laundry wash.

    One detail that should earn the ire of the Filipino people is the report that policemen – who are by the way beneficiaries of a couple of salary increases given by President Duterte to dissuade them from conniving with drug traffickers and other criminals – have been escorting the couriers smuggling foreign currencies into the country. The PNP Civil Security Group (CSG) on Wednesday ordered a crackdown on these cops who are moonlighting as security escorts of Chinese travelers and other foreigners who are allegedly involved in money laundering.

    CSG Director Maj. Gen. Roberto Fajardo issued the order following reports that some $370 million was smuggled into the country by two syndicates last year with the assistance of unscrupulous policemen and soldiers. The reports probably came from people of the Bureau of Customs, prompting PNP spokesman Brig. Gen. Bernard Banac to issue a retort saying the PNP Aviation Security Group does not have access to the “airside” areas of the NAIA, only in the “landside” areas which are open to the public. Banac added the mission of the airport policemen is only general law enforcement and public safety functions. Banac claimed that smuggling happens at the airside portion of the airports, a place which has no police presence, and where law enforcement is supervised by agencies handling security, immigration, customs and other administrative requirements of passengers. The BOC and the PNP can trade accusations if they like, but in the perception of ordinary Filipinos, this is just the start of the usual finger-pointing.

    Tracing where the money went is something for the banks, the Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas and the Department of Finance (DOF) to do, but these officials are hampered by the bank secrecy law which Congress itself enacted. Assistant Finance Secretary Tony Lambino said the Department could try anew to work with Congress to deal with concerns about this issue after legislators twice blocked the DOF’s earlier efforts to ease bank secrecy regulations. Finance Secretary Sonny Dominguez should convince the representatives and senators this time that the lifting of bank secrecy would be a big help in fighting tax fraud and other illegal activities involving money.

    Our lawmakers and the economic team of President Duterte, especially the Department of Finance and the Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas, along with the AMLC, should act fast to stop money laundering which has become prevalent in the country. As Congressman Salceda correctly stated, our inaction could lead to the Philippines being delisted from the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) for being a high-risk base for terrorism financing and money laundering.

    That would be one more headache for the current occupant of Malacanang Palace.

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