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Editorial

VIP access for ‘pastillas’

/ 05:00 AM February 21, 2020

They’ve been singing “happy days are here again” at the Bureau of Immigration (BI).

Sen. Risa Hontiveros, chair of the Senate committee on women, children, family relations and gender equality, dropped a bombshell last Monday: a “pastillas” scheme at the airports in which Chinese nationals enjoy VIP access for a “service fee” of some P10,000 each.

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The evidence proving the scheme—thus named because the payoff is rolled up in bond paper like the local milk candy—is damning. In a video provided by a whistleblower, a BI officer escorts arriving Chinese nationals to an inner office, where he checks their identities against a prepared list with a supervisor. There are as well screenshots of BI officers’ Viber group messages showing the names, flight details and photos of the Chinese nationals who forked over the grease money.

Hontiveros said the corruption was widespread, involving the “welcoming committee” of BI officers at the airports, the partner Chinese and Filipino tour operators, and “higher-ups” in the bureaucracy. She said the scheme had been perfected to a near-science due to the spike in the demand for Chinese nationals to work in Philippine offshore gaming operations, or Pogos.

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Per BI numbers, some 1.8 million Chinese nationals have entered the Philippines in recent years. And with some 2,000 of them arriving daily—most of whom are presumed hired in Pogos even if they hold only tourist visas—Hontiveros estimated that as much as P10 billion has changed hands since 2016, when Pogos began to pop up like mushrooms all over Metro Manila under the cozy PH-China relationship.

“Somebody sold our country’s borders for Chinese money. Somebody rigged the system, centralized the operations, and made this a billion-peso enterprise,” Hontiveros said at the resumption of her committee’s inquiry into the link between the boom in Pogos to prostitution and human trafficking in the Philippines.

It’s like the Philippines has become “borderless,” she added, like an eatery catering to everyone: “parang karinderyang bukas sa lahat.”

With the “lion’s share” of the money going to the BI “bosses,” the bribery scheme must surely be under the protection of padrinos, or officers higher up the government chain, Hontiveros said.

Who will root out the protectors and implementers of this scheme? And what to do with a bureau synonymous with notoriety?

A “deeply alarmed” Immigration Commissioner Jaime Morente has ordered the total revamp of airport personnel, all terminal heads, and all heads of the Travel Control and Enforcement Unit (TCEU).

The terminal heads of the Ninoy Aquino International Airport and the TCEU chief—all unnamed—have been relieved of duty for command responsibility, and “the investigation does not revolve entirely around them,” BI spokesperson Dana Sandoval said. Adding that the bureau was “looking at the bigger picture.”

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Morente has ordered Deputy Commissioner J. Tobias Javier to do a “full-blown investigation” and to file a report within 15 days. “We are not taking this lightly. This issue is a major blow to the bureau and to our efforts [to clean up the system],” Morente said in a statement.

We are not impressed. And neither is Sen. Joel Villanueva, who said, correctly, that Morente would have to do more than shuffle erring people around.

Villanueva counts the “pastillas scheme” as the fourth major scandal at the BI since 2016. Surely it still rankles that BI deputy commissioners Al Argosino and Michael Robles were found to have extorted and received P50 million from casino operator Jack Lam.

The senator also cited the supposed racket at the BI satellite office in Taguig City where immigration staff demanded P5,000 in grease money to speed up processing of special work permits, as well as the report in July 2019 on BI agents accused of running an “escort service” for illegal foreign workers.

“Happy days are back for the corrupt” at the BI, lamented Villanueva. He renewed his call for the outright suspension of Pogos, which have been linked to such crimes as kidnapping for ransom, tax evasion, and prostitution.

Sen. Francis Pangilinan also called for the investigation and regulation of Pogos. At the same time, he appealed to the government “to strengthen its stand against the increasing cases of corruption within its ranks.”

The Duterte administration has been gun-shy vis-à-vis issues involving China and the Chinese people. On the latest scandal at the BI, all that had earlier been heard from Malacañang was a tepid assurance from Salvador Panelo that the government would “act” on any formal complaint filed. But yesterday, Panelo announced that the President had relieved all BI officials and employees involved in the “pastillas scheme.” He did not name them, say how many, disclose exactly how they were found out, or what is coming to them.

Our expectations concerning crime and punishment are undiminished.

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TAGS: Bureau of Immigration, China, pastillas, VIP access
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