Senate panel seeks raps vs 27 in ‘pastillas scam’ | Inquirer News
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Senate panel seeks raps vs 27 in ‘pastillas scam’

By: - Correspondent / @melvingasconINQ
/ 05:30 AM January 27, 2022
Risa Hontiveros files candidacy for reelection to Senate

Senator Risa Hontiveros during one of the hearings at the Senate. Senate PRIB file photo / Joseph Vidal

MANILA, Philipppines — A Senate committee on Wednesday recommended the criminal prosecution of 27 current and former immigration personnel allegedly involved in the so-called “pastillas scam” which allowed the entry into the country of thousands of foreign, mostly Chinese, workers in exchange for bribes at Ninoy Aquino International Airport (Naia).

“If some people think they have silenced the investigation into the pastillas scam, they are wrong. It is time for the government to carry out an overhaul of the Bureau of Immigration (BI),” said Sen. Risa Hontiveros, chair of the Senate committee on women, children, family relations and gender equality.

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The committee report said that it was not the “wealthy and the powerful who are put at risk” when the country’s borders are “made porous by the malfeasance of those charged with protecting them.”

“It is the already vulnerable who are made even more vulnerable—those who fall victim to human traffickers and are smuggled out to white slavery rings, those who lose their livelihoods because of the influx of foreign workers on spurious visa arrangements,” it said.

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The pastillas scam was a clandestine operation that allowed the entry of mostly Chinese nationals, mainly workers for Philippine offshore gaming operators (Pogos), with hardly any scrutiny in exchange for bribes to corrupt immigration officers at Naia.

The scam was so named because the bribe money was usually rolled up like the popular Filipino milk-based candy.

The committee said the Pogo industry had “exacerbated” local prostitution and human trafficking, leading women and girls into serving “the sexual appetites of an exploding market composed of Chinese workers.”

“It also encouraged inbound prostitution, with the creation of ‘Chinese-only’ prostitution that made the country a destination for foreign trafficked women on a scale not seen before,” the committee report said.

The committee recommend forging bilateral treaties to protect foreign women from trafficking and prostitution. It decried the supposed “lack of responsive coordination from the Chinese embassy” in the cases of women rescued from prostitution rings.

“Current laws on trafficking must be amended to address the use of online platforms for criminal ends and to immediately pass the amendments to the Anti-Trafficking in Persons Act, (while) the current Anti-Prostitution Law should likewise be amended to reflect the reality of technology-abetted prostitution,” it said.

Citing immigration data, Hontiveros said almost 4 million Chinese entered the country from August 2017 to January 2020, driven by the thriving Pogo industry and its demand for Mandarin-speaking workers.

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The committee recommended the filing of graft charges against the former and current immigration personnel allegedly led by Marc Red Mariñas, who used to head the BI’s Ports Operation Division, and his father, Maynardo Mariñas, the ex-chief of the Special Operations Communication Unit.

Whistleblowers Allison Chiong and Dale Ignacio, both immigration officers, testified to the committee that members of the pastillas gang received a list of names of foreign nationals with corresponding arrival schedules, through a Viber chat group.

These foreigners were allowed into the country without the necessary checks or screenings, which are standard protocols for non-Filipinos, according to the committee report.

“In exchange for the convenience of not being screened, Chinese nationals paid P10,000 each, with P2,000 distributed to the airport employees,” the report said.

It also quoted Ignacio’s estimate that around 90 percent of the immigration personnel assigned at Naia terminals were involved in the scheme and received kickbacks.

“The combined revenue streams from the pastillas kickbacks and the VUA (visa upon arrival) kickbacks is estimated to be in the billions of pesos,” according to the report.

It added that the evidence indicated that the father-and-son tandem had “cornered” the “revenue streams” from the clandestine operation.

“We have gathered strong evidence—from the numerous screenshots to the testimonies of the whistleblowers who are themselves from the BI. We thank them for their courage and cooperation,” Hontiveros said.

The immigration bureau said it welcomed the filing of charges against some of its personnel involved in the scam and called the move a step forward toward achieving justice and totally eliminating corruption among its ranks.

“We trust the wisdom of the Senate on the decision to recommend the filing of charges against said personnel, and pray that cases filed against them be heard and resolved swiftly,” immigration spokesperson Dana Sandoval said in a statement to the Inquirer.

The committee also pushed the indictment of at least five of the 27 for their alleged violations of the law on the filing of statements of assets, liabilities and net worth.

It also recommended further investigation of the liability of former Justice Secretary Vitaliano Aguirre II, for the questionable appointment of the Mariñases and for giving them “wide discretion” over the approval of VUAs. —WITH A REPORT FROM TINA G. SANTOS

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TAGS: BI, Bureau of Immigration, pastillas scheme, Senate, Senator Hontiveros
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