POGO’s perils: 43 foreign workers rescued in raid
MANILA, Philippines — A week after playing down reports of an increase in kidnappings particularly of Chinese nationals, the Department of the Interior and Local Government (DILG) and the Philippine National Police on Wednesday vowed to put a stop to what they called the new wave of crimes brought by foreigners, especially those engaged in the Philippine offshore gaming operator (POGO) industry.
Interior Secretary Benhur Abalos did not hide his exasperation on Wednesday as he went back to the PNP headquarters after his confirmation hearing in Congress to present another suspect involved in the kidnapping of dozens of Chinese nationals working for a POGO company.
“We are gearing up in reviving our economy [more than two years into the pandemic], and these few people are giving us a bad name in terms of our peace and order,” he told reporters.
Abalos announced the PNP Anti-Kidnapping Group’s (AKG) successful rescue operation on Wednesday of Wu Jia and 42 other Chinese nationals “who were similarly enslaved under human trafficking conditions” at Lucky South 99 Outsourcing Inc. on Fil-am Friendship Highway in Angeles City, Pampanga province.
He said the rescue operation stemmed from information provided by the PNP’s foreign counterpart based on the complaint of the family of Wu, who was being held for a P1-million ransom since late Monday night.
Brig. Gen. Cesar Pasiwen, Central Luzon police director, said a team from the PNP-AKG raided the Lucky South 99 building to rescue the foreign nationals.
The operation also led to the arrest of Chen Yi Bien, 33, the company’s human resources manager and a resident of Clark Freeport Zone.
According to Pasiwen, the arrested Chinese man and the rescued foreigners were brought to Camp Crame for documentation.
Irish Calaguas, chief adviser to Angeles City Mayor Carmelo Lazatin Jr., told the Inquirer that Lucky South 99 was one of the two Pogo companies operating in the city with a license from the Philippine Amusement and Gaming Corp. (Pagcor).
Last month, authorities also rescued two Thai workers from a POGO firm in Mabalacat. The two foreigners were reportedly victims of human trafficking.
According to Abalos, Wu is being debriefed by the PNP-AKG to dig deeper into the circumstances surrounding the kidnapping and to build a strong case against all persons involved in the crime.
Meanwhile, the 42 rescued POGO workers were undergoing documentation and records verification.
The police could not confirm if Lucky South 99 continued its operations after the police operation on Wednesday, but Abalos vowed to have it closed down and its license revoked should the investigation conclude that it was involved in human trafficking.
Abalos said the police were “digging further” into investigating if a criminal syndicate was involved in the trafficking of Chinese nationals to become Pogo workers.
“Human trafficking is an abominable crime, especially in our present time,” the DILG chief said, calling it modern slavery.
Abalos said he and PNP chief Gen. Rodolfo Azurin Jr. were set to meet with officials of Pagcor, which regulates the Pogo industry, the Department of Justice, and some representatives of registered Pogo companies to create a system of reportorial requirements for these gaming operators.
According to the secretary, they would propose that Pogo operators, a major source of government revenues, disclose the identities of all their registered employees, and more importantly, workers who were no longer with them, as this could be compared with the list of local and foreign individuals who were reported missing.
“Once we have a list, more or less we have a benchmark, we can now have a system to check the number of victims of human trafficking,” he explained.
Data from the PNP showed there are already 15 Pogo-related kidnappings in the country this year, surpassing the 12 cases recorded last year.
Appearing earlier before the congressional Commission on Appointments on Wednesday, Abalos assured the lawmakers that the PNP was also acting on the reports that dozens of individuals, many of them young Filipino women and foreigners, were forcibly taken in the past several weeks.
Some of these incidents were even caught on video, including one that showed a supposed kidnapping victim being tortured by his captors.
Abalos said earlier during his confirmation hearing that the Pampanga operation was carried out just moments after the police rescued a Malaysian tourist from her two abductors, one of whom was also a Malaysian. (See related story on Page A6.)
“We will make sure that all these individuals will be charged,” Abalos said in response to a question from Surigao del Sur Rep. Johnny Pimentel.
“If there are Pogos involved, we will investigate and have them closed. That’s what we’re doing now. We just want to assure the public that the police are doing something about this,” he said.
He said the DILG was also coordinating with the Chinese Embassy in Manila to ascertain the number of its citizens who were allegedly abducted in different parts of the country.
Abalos urged the victims of abduction and their families to come forward, file an official complaint with the PNP and help in the investigation of these incidents.
An inspection and audit are also underway to account for all private security personnel such as watchmen, blue guards, and protective agents, especially those carrying firearms while performing security duties.
This is to preclude the possible involvement of private security providers in illegal activities at Pogo and other gaming establishments.
In his separate confirmation hearing, Justice Secretary Jesus Crispin Remulla said the country’s problem regarding undocumented aliens compounded the reported kidnappings of foreigners.
He disclosed that the Bureau of Immigration estimated that there were around 800,000 illegal aliens staying in the country.
“That’s a problem we have to face right now,” Remulla said.
To address this, the justice secretary said it was high time for the government to have a biometric database of foreign visitors, noting that the Philippines has been offering visa-free entry to many foreign nationals.
“If we’re able to get the biometrics (of the foreigners), we will have a database of (foreign nationals) in the country and their whereabouts,” Remulla said.
In Congress, Sen. Grace Poe on Wednesday expressed concern over the “seeming media blackout” allegedly waged by government authorities on the increasing kidnapping incidents in the country.
Poe noted the lack of official and verified information from the PNP on the matter, amid fears and anxiety caused by reports of abductions to the general public.
“We want to know from the PNP: What is really happening? Why is there a news blackout?” she said in an interview.
The senator raised the matter as the Senate committee on public order and dangerous drugs is set to look into the rising cases of abductions and disappearances, often ending up in killings, some of which supposedly involved foreigners.
—WITH REPORTS FROM MELVIN GASCON AND JUN A. MALIG