Whistleblower tags ‘pastillas’ racket boss in Senate probe
MANILA, Philippines — A former senior immigration airport official who lost the race for mayor of Muntinlupa City in the last election was the alleged head of the “pastillas” bribery scheme, an immigration officer who turned whistleblower told senators during a hearing on the multibillion-peso racket on Tuesday.
Immigration officer Jeffrey Dale Ignacio pointed to former Ports Operations Division (POD) chief Marc Red Mariñas as the man on top of the pastillas “pyramid” at Ninoy Aquino International Airport (Naia).
Ignacio told the senators that Mariñas had a “contact” in the Office of the Ombudsman who could “help in our case,” referring to himself and 18 other immigration officers charged with graft by the National Bureau of Investigation in connection with the racket.
The chief of the NBI Special Action Unit, Emeterio Dongallo Jr., said the bureau was looking into Ignacio’s allegation.
Mariñas had no immediate comment. He did not participate in the hearing, which was conducted through a teleconference with several other immigration officers who were at the NBI office in Manila.
Mariñas was cited for contempt for ignoring the Senate’s subpoena along with his father Maynard Mariñas, the retired head of the Special Operations Communications Unit (Socu) of the Bureau of Immigration (BI), and Immigration Officers Totoy Magbuhos and Danieve Binsol.
Ignacio started helping the NBI investigation last month and cooperated in entrapping lawyer Joshua Paul Capiral, chief of the NBI’s legal assistance section, for allegedly extorting money from the 19 charged in the Ombudsman’s office in exchange for a favorable decision.
Ignacio told the hearing that Mariñas and security guard Fidel Mendoza presided over a Sept. 8 meeting of immigration officers at Mazu Seafood Restaurant in Pasay City to discuss their cases.
“What I remember is Sir Red saying that they have a contact with the Ombudsman. Sir Red and Fidel Mendoza left early because they will meet their contact,” Ignacio said.
Asked by Sen. Risa Hontiveros how he interpreted Mariñas’ statement, Ignacio said he took it to mean that there was someone at the Office of the Ombudsman who could help them.
More to be charged
“During our Sept. 8 meeting, they mentioned that they had people waiting at the Ombudsman. My feeling is that they are the ones who could help in our case,” he said.
Dongallo said that after a “thorough interview” with Ignacio, whom he called “our second witness,” more people would be charged.
“I don’t have a concrete number, but it would be more than the original 40 or 41,” he said.
Hontiveros said Ignacio’s statement was a cause for concern.
“Who is Mariñas’ contact in the Ombudsman? Is the Ombudsman involved in corruption as well? This revelation is worrying and the NBI should look into this immediately,” she said in a statement.
The pastillas scheme, so called because the bribe money was rolled in paper like the milk candy, involved immigration officers who allowed Chinese nationals to enter the country without question in exchange for a fee.
Many of these Chinese nationals arrived as tourists but intended to work for Philippine offshore gaming operators.
Hontiveros had estimated that those involved in the racket, including some tour operators, had raked in about P10 billion since the early part of the Duterte administration.
‘Like a pyramid’
At the hearing of the Senate committee on women, children, family relations and gender equality headed by Hontiveros, Ignacio said the pastillas scheme was like a “pyramid,” and Mariñas was at the top with Mendoza as his right hand.
Next in line was Erwin Ortañez, the travel control and enforcement unit (TCEU) head for Naia Terminals 1 to 3. Under Ortañez were Glennford Comia, Benlado Guevarra, Danieve Binsol, Deon Carlo Albao, Arlan Mendoza and Anthony Lopez, Ignacio said.
The bribery scheme continued even after Grifton Medina replaced Mariñas as POD chief, he said.
Ortañez, Mendoza, Lopez, Guevarra, and Immigration Officers Vincent Bryan Alas, Bradford Allen So, Dennis Robles and Billy Cadang denied knowledge of the racket.
Mendoza, Albao and Medina were among the 19 charged in the Office of the Ombudsman.
Ignacio said Comia, Albao, Magbuhos, Binsol and Robles were the “suppliers” of the Chinese travelers.
He said he knew this because his task was to alphabetize the names and list the flight details of the arriving Chinese passengers who paid the bribe.
Code names of suppliers
He forwarded the names to a Viber group and that was where he saw the code names of the suppliers, he said.
According to him, he joined the racket in the fourth quarter of 2017 after the immigration personnel’s overtime pay was removed and his bills started piling up.
He was invited to join the pastillas group by fellow Immigration Officer Phol Villanueva, who is also among the 19 charged by the NBI.
The “frontliners” received P5,000 to P20,000 weekly, or every two weeks, Ignacio said.
He said that if the passenger’s name was on the list sent to their chat group, that person’s passport would be stamped with no questions asked. Chinese nationals who obtain a visa upon arrival (VUA) are automatically allowed to pass through immigration, he added.
Ignacio confirmed the testimony of the first whistleblower, Immigration Officer Allison “Alex” Chiong. He said that after Chiong’s exposé, he received a subpoena from the NBI.
Ignacio said the lawyers hired by Mariñas—Joel Ferrer and his son, Jeff Ferrer—called him and other immigration officers who received a subpoena to a meeting. The lawyers told them not to respond to the subpoena as there were no formal charges anyway, he said.
Not included in charges
He was surprised to learn later that Mariñas, Ortañez and the other “bosses” had given statements to the NBI and were not among those included in the charges. He felt that he and the others were used as “their shield” to avoid charges.
The elder Ferrer, who represented other BI personnel, said he did not know Ignacio and never met or talked with him.
But Ignacio showed a screenshot of a group chat with Ferrer’s son to back up his narration.
At the Sept. 8 meeting, Mariñas also told the group that they should stick together and not be like Medina, whom he had seen at the Office of the Ombudsman with a lawyer.
He recalled Mendoza saying that Medina was the “weakest link” and was talkative.
Hontiveros questioned the appointment of Mariñas as POD chief when his father headed the BI’s Socu as this had removed structural checks and balances.
The POD and Socu were given the power to assess, review and prepare orders on all requests for VUAs.
“Did this not allow the creation of a cabal to run a scheme like the pastillas scheme in the bureau?” Hontiveros said.
Immigration Commissioner Tobias Javier said there were still checks and balances because the Office of the Commissioner approves the VUAs and the POD only implements it.
Former Justice Secretary Vitaliano Aguirre II said he appointed Mariñas as POD chief but it was BI chief Jaime Morante who named Mariñas’ father Socu head.
Mariñas, 45, resigned in 2018 after serving BI for 18 years. He ran for mayor of Muntinlupa City the following year but lost.
He served as a front-line immigration officer at Naia for 14 years before he was designated as alien control officer of San Fernando, La Union, in 2014.
In a statement announcing his resignation, BI said Mariñas was handpicked by Aguirre in July 2016 to head the POD, considered the most important and sensitive immigration office, which oversees the operations of the bureau in the various international ports nationwide.
Under Mariñas, the POD prevented the entry of “thousands of unwanted aliens, including suspected terrorists, fugitives and sex offenders,” the BI said. The TCEU under the POD prevented the departure of thousands of suspected victims of human trafficking and illegal recruitment, it added.
Sought to comment on Mariñas’ alleged involvement in “pastillas scheme,” BI spokesperson Dana Sandoval he “is not anymore connected with the BI.” —WITH A REPORT FROM TINA G. SANTOS INQ