BI chief orders revamp at Naia after ‘pastillas’ flak
Immigration Commissioner Jaime Morente on Thursday said he ordered a total personnel revamp at Ninoy Aquino International Airport (Naia) following allegations of widespread corruption connected to the influx of Chinese workers for online gambling companies, which was exposed in the Senate last week.In a statement, Morente said the revamp was effective immediately and covered all immigration personnel assigned at Terminals 1, 2 and 3.
Almost 800 immigration officers and staff will be affected, according to Bureau of Immigration (BI) spokesperson Dana Sandoval.
“Many were reassigned to lower positions or to other divisions. They were removed and assignments were changed,” she said.
Port Operations Division (POD) deputies, terminal heads and counter personnel had been replaced, she added.
The fate of the POD chief will be decided separately by the Department of Justice (DOJ), which oversees the Bureau of Immigration, Sandoval said.
She said some front-line personnel would be redeployed or reassigned from one terminal to another while others would be moved from daytime to nighttime duties and vice versa.
‘Impact on morale’
Morente said the “changes in management responsibilities and section assignments in our airports are part of the ongoing actions that are being taken to address the recent resurgence of unauthorized activities and irregularities, as major steps have already been made to address these issues since 2016.”
“These irregularities and their consequences impact on morale and detract from the professionalism and service that the men and women of the Bureau of Immigration are pledged to provide,” he added.
Morente was referring to the “pastillas” payoff scam exposed in the Senate last week by an immigration officer who admitted he was once involved in the racket.
The scam was called pastillas because the bribe money was rolled up like milk candy.
Corrupt immigration officers in cahoots with Filipino and Chinese tour operators had been collecting P10,000 in exchange for “VIP treatment” from each Chinese citizen who enters the country to work for Philippine offshore gaming operators (Pogos) without a permit, according to whistleblower Allison “Alex” Chiong.
Of the “service fee” collected, P2,000 was divided among officers of the BI’s Travel Control and Enforcement Unit (TCEU), duty immigration supervisor and terminal heads, and the remaining P8,000 was given to the tour operators and “syndicates” who would transport the Chinese workers from the airport to the Pogo offices.
P10B in bribes
Sen. Risa Hontiveros, who opened the hearings on irregularities and crimes related to Pogos, estimated that up to P10 billion in bribes had been collected by airport syndicates since 2016 and called for a lifestyle check on immigration officials.
Morente last week relieved five senior officers at the Naia terminals and the TCEU. On orders of the President, he removed 16 more immigration officers from their posts. All were considered on “floating status,” according to Sandoval.
The immigration chief also created a committee to probe the “pastillas” operation, assisted by the National Bureau of Investigation.
Morente said in his statement that his agency had activated new protocols in conducting secondary inspections in open areas for “transparency” and installed additional CCTV cameras covering primary inspectors.
He also said the corruption investigation would be expanded to include private travel agencies that act as the “recruiters” of the Chinese Pogo workers.
“These agencies, as mentioned in the Senate hearing, have counterparts both in China and in the Philippines who reportedly receive the bulk of the grease money given by Chinese nationals who avail [themselves] of said VIP treatment,” Morente said.
“We see this as one of the major root causes, as these agencies are the source of the corruption,” he added. —TINA G. SANTOS
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