Senator claims billion-peso corruption scheme facilitated entry of Chinese ‘VIPs’

<i>Photo: Senator Risa Hontiveros / FB</i>
Photo: Senator Risa Hontiveros / FB

Senator Risa Hontiveros today accused corrupt officials at the Bureau of Immigration of receiving an estimated PHP1 billion (US$19.771 million) in bribes through a scheme allowing Chinese “VIPs” to more easily enter the Philippines.

Hontiveros made the allegations at today’s Senate hearing on crime allegedly associated with Philippine Offshore Gaming Operators (POGOs), online gambling enterprises that cater to, and are largely staffed by, Chinese nationals.

The senator showed hidden camera footage in which an immigration officer purportedly acting as a whistleblower takes a Chinese national’s documents then retreats to a backroom, where he appears to check them against a list that Hontiveros said contained the particulars of the travelers who had paid bribes for expedited processing.

In a statement today, the senator alleged that the corrupt immigration officials took bribes of PHP10,000 (US$197) as a “service fee” to facilitate the Chinese nationals’ entry, a scheme she claimed was approved by the agency’s senior officials.

“Why is it that these Chinese nationals seem to have VIP escorts [from the Immigration Bureau] while entering our country?” she said in the hearing.

The senator also showed screenshots of Viber groups — also allegedly obtained from the whistleblower — that she maintained contained the names, flight details, and photos of Chinese nationals who had paid the bribes.

“This isn’t standard procedure,” she said.

Hontiveros also showed photos of the purported money being paid to immigration officials, which she said were called pastillas because they were rolled up and wrapped in paper like the milk-based confectionery.

She added that according to her informant, the scheme was good business as the Immigration Bureau sees thousands of POGO workers entering the country. In a previous hearing, the bureau noted that around 1.8 million Chinese nationals have entered the country in recent years.

“The lion’s share goes to the bosses… Somebody rigged the system, centralized the operations, and made this into a billion-peso enterprise,” she said, and maintaining that there was someone powerful benefiting from the arrangement.

Bureau Deputy Commissioner J. Tobias Javier and Port Operations Division head Grifton Medina, who were both at the Senate hearing, rejected Hontiveros’ allegations and insisted it was the first time they heard of the scheme.

Hontiveros has been pushing for the suspension of POGOs because the firms have allegedly contributed to a rise in crime, including prostitution. In a similar hearing last month, she claimed that women were being pimped to POGO workers through social messaging apps.

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