Ex-justice secretary linked to immigration racket
MANILA, Philippines — Former Justice Secretary Vitaliano Aguirre II has been thrust into another controversy.
This time, the fraternity brother of President Rodrigo Duterte is tagged as the “protector” of immigration officials who engaged in the “pastillas” racket in the Bureau of Immigration (BI) in which bribes were paid to grease the entry of hordes of Chinese visitors into the country.
“He is the protector of the syndicate based on what Mr. Chiong reported to me,” newspaper columnist Ramon Tulfo said at a Senate hearing on Monday presided over by Sen. Risa Hontiveros, chair of the committee on women, children, family relations and gender equality.
Tulfo, who was appointed by Duterte last year as his special ambassador for public diplomacy to China, was referring to whistleblower and immigration officer Allison Chiong as his source.
In a statement, Aguirre said he would formally ask Hontiveros to invite him and Tulfo to the next hearing so he could “tell Tulfo to his face that he is a liar … for I am completely innocent of his charges.”
“I was told that he (Tulfo) was the only one saying that in the Senate. Even his so-called whistleblower did not say what he was accusing me of,” Aguirre said.
‘Very serious’ accusation
In Malacañang, presidential spokesperson Salvador Panelo urged authorities to probe the “very serious” accusation that Aguirre protected the pastillas racket.
Panelo said Aguirre, who left the government in 2018, may still be criminally liable if his involvement in the irregularity was proven.
Aguirre was justice secretary when he was linked to other controversies, such as the P50-million BI bribery scandal, downgrading the murder charges against policemen in the death of Albuera Mayor Rolando Espinosa Sr., and clearing former Customs officials, including Nicanor Faeldon, in the P6.4-billion crystal meth smuggling case.
Loot delivery by chopper
Tulfo also said he was referring to Aguirre when he disclosed in a recent column that BI officials used a chartered helicopter to deliver to a top official his share of the loot.
But Chiong said that when it came to Aguirre’s alleged involvement, Tulfo had his own intelligence network that he was protecting.
Chiong said it was another source who provided the information about the helicopter supposedly being used to deliver money to an official in Mulanay, Quezon province, but he said he helped confirm the identity of the BI personnel seen in one helicopter photo.
Hontiveros said she would give Aguirre the chance to respond to the allegations, which, for her, could no longer be brushed aside as hearsay.
The body of evidence that Chiong had provided to the committee, including those that would stand up to scrutiny, was being assessed by the National Bureau of Investigation, according to the senator.
It was Chiong who first exposed the pastillas racket and named his colleagues who were allegedly on the take from Chinese nationals, many of whom work in Philippine offshore gaming operators (Pogos), who wanted to enter the country without undergoing scrutiny.
At the resumption of the Senate hearing on the scandal, Chiong came face-to-face with his colleagues who denied his allegation.
But Hontiveros was incredulous of their denials, citing the video provided by Chiong of an operation in which passengers were brought to a backroom to facilitate entry, the screenshots of Viber group chats of immigration officials involved in the racket, and the financial situation of two immigration officials.
While there were conflicting claims, she said she would believe those who presented evidence and testified at personal risk.
At the hearing, Marc Red Mariñas, former BI deputy commissioner and chief of the bureau’s Ports Operation Division (POD), challenged Chiong’s video of the supposed operation to facilitate the entry of Chinese visitors and denied knowledge of the pastillas racket.
Mariñas said Chiong took the video of an ordinary, innocent procedure in the primary inspection of passengers and imputed it with “malice” to make it appear that Chinese visitors were being given special treatment in exchange for money.
Monthly pay, poll candidate
Hontiveros questioned Mariñas about his missing statements of assets, liabilities and net worth (SALNs) for certain years, and pointed out that while he had a monthly salary of P24,000 before he left the bureau, he was able to run for Muntinlupa mayor in last year’s election.
She also noted that in 2017 when he was able to file a SALN, his net worth was P5.5 million.
But his staff assistant, Fidel Mendoza, who was ranked as a BI security guard with a salary of P11,000 plus P20,000 in augmentation pay, was able to declare a net worth of P9.9 million in the same year, Hontiveros said.
Mendoza said he had a construction business from which he derived other income.
For Hontiveros, these were indications of corruption.
“Missing SALNs, net worth not equivalent to salary grade. These are not new. These are classic corrupt moves,” she said.
Mariñas and Mendoza also confirmed at the hearing that they were the passengers in a yellow helicopter as seen in a photo shown by Chiong, but they denied that it was taken in Mulanay.
He and Mendoza denied traveling to Mulanay regularly.
Hontiveros also questioned the fact that when Mariñas was POD chief and his father Maynardo Mariñas headed the Special Operations and Communications Unit of the BI, Aguirre issued a 2017 department circular giving these two offices the power of review, assessment and preparation of orders on all requests for visas upon arrival.
She said that instead of the commissioner having this power, it was given to a father-and-son team heading different offices.
She noted that the visa upon arrival was the document used by women trafficked into prostitution operations in the country catering to Pogos.
Hontiveros also disclosed screenshots of conversations in the messaging application WeChat where travel agencies offer birth certificates, Philippine passports and marriage certificates to Chinese nationals who want to go to the Philippines.
One chat, which was in Chinese and which Hontiveros had translated into English, even contained the term pastillas, code name for bribe to BI agents.
Another offered services to remove anyone from the [immigration] blacklist and to be released from the airport if barred entry, she said.
Yet another offer said the travel agency could process a driver’s license from the Land Transportation Office or open a bank account with only a photo of the passport. No personal appearance required.
“Obviously, these are criminal acts, manufacturing birth certificates for non-Filipinos, delisting from the blacklist,” she said.
—With reports from Dona Z. Pazzibugan and Julie M. Aurelio
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