NBI presses raps vs 20 tagged in ‘pastillas’ scam
MANILA, Philippines — The National Bureau of Investigation has asked the Office of the Ombudsman to suspend and prosecute 19 immigration officers it found to have been running a clandestine escort service known as the “pastillas” racket that catered mostly to Chinese nationals planning to work in the country illegally.
NBI Special Action Unit chief Emeterio Dongallo Jr. on Wednesday said the preventive suspension would “preclude” the airport officers of the Bureau of Immigration (BI) from influencing any subsequent investigation.
Chinese national Liya Wu, owner of Empire International Travel and Tours in Binondo, Manila, was also held legally liable for the corruption of public officials by conniving with some of the BI officers in sending the “undesirable aliens” to the country, Dongallo said.
In a statement, the immigration bureau welcomed the charges against its officers, saying they would be given the “opportunity to defend themselves in the proper forum.”
“We are one with the campaign of the government to get rid of corruption and make those erring personnel accountable before the court of law,” the bureau said in a statement.
After a five-month probe, the NBI said in a letter to the Ombudsman on Tuesday that it found that the 19 immigration officers had violated the antigraft law, or Republic Act No. 3019.
One of the 19 immigration officers, Jeffrey Dale Ignacio, also violated the human trafficking law for allegedly facilitating the entry of a Taiwanese woman who was later rescued from a prostitution den, Dongallo said.
Under the pastillas scheme, which was disclosed by a whistleblower during a Senate investigation led by Sen. Risa Hontiveros early this year, Chinese nationals traveling as tourists but who intended to work for Philippine overseas gaming operators (Pogos) pay a P10,000 “service fee” for their smooth entry into the country.
Immigration officer Allison “Alex” Chiong, the whistleblower, told the Senate that of the total amount, P2,000 would be divided among officers of the BI’s Travel Control and Enforcement Unit (TCEU), duty immigration supervisor and terminal heads. The remainder was to be given to tour operators and syndicates who will transport the Chinese from the airport to the Pogo facilities.
The scheme acquired the pastillas label because the bribe money was rolled in a white piece of paper and looked like the Filipino milk candy.
According to the NBI letter to the Ombudsman, the Taiwanese woman, who also testified at the Senate inquiry, said she traveled to the Philippines in October 2019 after being offered work as an administrative staff for an advertising company. She was later moved to an illegal Pogo, where her passport was seized, and then ended up in the prostitution den.
Acting NBI Director Eric Distor said it was Ignacio who recruited the woman to work in the Philippines even though she only had a tourist visa.
The NBI said that the 23-year-old woman was abused physically, mentally and “forced to work like a slave” until she was rescued by the NBI-Special Task Force on Feb. 3, 2020.
Still in PH
Distor said the NBI validated Chiong’s allegations and verified that the names of foreign nationals in the “Pastillas Viber group” were “real,” and that they were allowed entry into the country and “processed” by members of the pastillas group.
Records also show that most of the foreigners are still in the Philippines despite the lapse of the period of their legal stay in the country.
Distor said Chiong’s allegations were “meritorious” but further investigation of “other personalities” was needed.
“Based on the evidence gathered, supported by photos and video recordings submitted by the whistleblower, subjects in this case indeed committed criminal transgressions and should be held liable thereof,” Distor said.
Hontiveros commended the NBI “for taking decisive action against those who have betrayed the country and contributed to the victimization of many Filipino women and children.”
The senator was looking into the operation of prostitution rings that catered to Pogo workers that victimized both Filipino and foreign women, including young girls, when the pastillas scheme was exposed.
P10B in grease money
She said up to P10 billion in bribe money greased the hands of corrupt BI employees and private tour operators behind the racket since the early part of the Duterte administration.
“In our committee hearings, the evidence presented pointed to how systemic and far-reaching the ‘pastillas scheme’ was. There were people in the higher levels of the BI who were supposedly on the take and benefiting from this illegal enterprise,” she said.
The senator said the filing of cases would help authorities prevent the arrival of undocumented Chinese travelers, many of whom ended up working for Pogos.
The other immigration officers who face graft charges are senior immigration officers Grifton Medina, acting chief of the Port Operations Division (POD) since 2018, and Er German Tegio Robin, deputy chief for operations of airport operations section from 2019 to 2020; Immigration Officers III Deon Carlo Albao, TCEU terminal head at Ninoy Aquino International Airport 1 until September 2019, and Abdul Fahad Calaca of the Airport Operations Division (AOD) until February 2020; Naia duty immigration supervisors Aurelio Somera Lucero III and George Bituin; and Naia POD duty immigration supervisor Salahudin Pacalda Hadjinoor.
Also criminally liable are Immigration Officers II Abdulhafez dela Tonga Hadjibasher, duty immigration supervisor since November 2019; Gabriel Ernest Estacio assigned at the arrival and departure areas of Naia 1; Chevy Reyes Naniong, member of the TCEU Naia AOD since 2013; Jeffrey Dale Ignacio and Manuel Sarmiento III, both of the AOD.
The others are Immigration Officers I Ralph Ryan Garcia, Phol Villanueva, Danilo Deudor, Mark Dolete Macababad; Hamza Pacasum and Cherry Pie Payabyab Ricolcol; and Security Guard 2 Fidel Mendoza designated as POD chief of staff.
—With reports from Jovic Yee and Marlon Ramos
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