Time’s up for ‘pastillas time’ | Inquirer Opinion
Editorial

Time’s up for ‘pastillas time’

/ 05:07 AM September 05, 2020

And now for some sweet news: The National Bureau of Investigation has filed graft charges against 19 immigration officials assigned at the Ninoy Aquino International Airport (Naia) who were involved in the so-called “pastillas” scheme that exploded in the news early this year. The scheme allowed the illegal entry into the Philippines of Chinese nationals without proper documents or permits, who then ended up as workers in offshore gaming operators. Why “pastillas”? Because the money given to the enterprising immigration personnel were rolled up in bond paper, like the famous local sweets.

Charged for violating the Anti-Graft and Corrupt Practices Act were Grifton Medina, senior immigration officer and acting chief of BI’s port operations division since October 2018; Deon Carlo Albao, deputy terminal head at Naia Terminal 1’s travel control and enforcement unit (TCEU); and a slew of other officers. Fidel Mendoza, the BI “security guard” who became controversial for allegedly having a net worth of P7.8 million in 2018, was also included in the charge sheet. Meanwhile, Liya Wu, owner of the Manila-based Empire International Travel and Tours, was charged for allegedly colluding with immigration officers by providing the names of Pogo workers arriving at Naia and indicating how much they were willing to pay.

“Whichever method is used, the aim remains the same: to justify the unchecked entry of an appalling influx of foreign nationals, mostly Chinese Philippine offshore gaming operators (Pogo) workers, into our borders—even though they do not merit admission into the country—all for monetary consideration,” the NBI said in its complaint submitted to the Office of the Ombudsman.

The scheme was first revealed last February by Sen. Risa Hontiveros who said the Chinese nationals paid P10,000 each—equivalent to 1,400 yuan ($200), or about a fourth of the average monthly cost of living in China, excluding rent. The money was paid by these workers to travel agencies in China to secure their smooth arrival in Manila. Of this amount, only P2,000 was divided among officials of the BI-TCEU; the rest of the money was given to tour operators and syndicates tasked to transport the Chinese nationals from the airport to the Pogo sites. The service fee was reportedly even higher, at P50,000, for those who had criminal records or were on the blacklist.

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And while returning Filipinos, in particular overseas workers, and other regular tourists had to suffer through long immigration queues, videos and photos presented at a Senate hearing showed the Chinese nationals arriving as tourists being escorted by BI agents to a special room, where their entry payment was verified.

Whistleblower and immigration officer Allison

Chiong said that when the “pastillas” modus started in 2016, it was to facilitate a “convenient and seamless” immigration process for casino high-rollers who paid P2,000 each. The money-making scheme then expanded into allowing the easy entry of Chinese tourists coming in to work illegally for Pogos. In 2017, Chiong said, he noticed a dramatic increase in the arrival of Chinese nationals, with as many as 2,000 of them entering the airport in one day. In its investigation, the NBI verified the identities of the Chinese nationals processed through the “pastillas” scheme and confirmed that they were still in the country.

Hontiveros, citing BI figures, earlier said that an estimated 1.8 million Chinese nationals entered the Philippines in the last four years. Of these, 800,000 entered with authentic tourist or student visas, while 1 million came through the “pastillas” scheme—which would amount to a staggering P10 billion in kickbacks. From January to March this year, the NBI said, 194 Pogo workers managed to enter the country, translating to almost P2-million “pastillas” money over only three months.

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Chiong also recalled how people at the airport would openly say “it’s pastillas time” when it was time to divide the spoils, usually distributed in small envelopes. He estimated that immigration officers assigned to Terminal 1 would get P20,000 weekly, while those in Terminal 3, which has less arrival traffic, would receive P8,000. The corruption in the BI was so entrenched, he told senators, that only 10 percent of the immigration staff were not part of the “pastillas” scheme.

The filing of charges against these corrupt officials is a welcome development vis-à-vis the rampant plunder besieging many government agencies. The unabated entry of illegal Pogo workers has also led to the proliferation of crimes such as prostitution, extortion, and, with the pandemic, illicit treatment clinics. But more crucial than throwing the book at erring BI personnel is making the charges stick. The NBI and government lawyers need to prosecute to the hilt, to ensure that the culprits in this case get their just deserts.

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TAGS: Bureau of Immigration (BI), Chinese nationals, National Bureau of Investigation (NBI), pastillas scheme, POGO workers

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