MANILA (UPDATE) - Former Immigration terminal heads at the Ninoy Aquino International Airport (NAIA) facilitated the "pastillas" scheme, which enabled illegal Chinese workers - including blacklisted individuals - to enter the Philippines, an Immigration officer told a Senate panel, Thursday.
Immigration officer Allison "Alex" Chiong earlier provided videos showing how border control officials received payoffs from Chinese tour operators in exchange for the "seamless" entry of some Chinese nationals seeking to work in the Philippine Offshore Gaming Operations (POGO) industry.
It was dubbed as the "pastillas" modus, where bribes were sometimes rolled in bond papers resembling a Philippine milk candy delicacy.
"'Yung mga blacklisted [individuals] kasama yan. They can freely enter our country," he said, noting that payoffs for the safe entry of each fugitive ranged between P50,000 and P200,000.
"Passing through na lang yun sa Immigration counter... wala nang tanong-tanong," he said.
Chiong said the following immigration officials were involved in the "pastillas" scheme:
•Former Bureau of Immigration Deputy Commissioner Marc Red Mariñas
•Travel Control Enforcement Unit officials
- Bien Guevarra
- Glenn Comia
- Den Binsol
- Totoy Magbuhos
- Dion Albao
- Paul Borja
- Anthony Lopez
- Dennis Robles
- Erwin Ortañez
- Fidel Mendoza
- Meynard Mariñas
Comia, Guevarra and Binsol - who formerly headed immigration operations in NAIA's terminals 1, 2 and 3, respectively - "took over" and systematized the modus sometime in 2016 after the Department of Justice removed overtime pay for immigration officials, Chiong said.
They are the "primary conduits" of Chinese travelers, he said.
The decrease in legitimate take home pay "resulted in unrest and disgruntlement" among Immigration officials and "to cope" with their expenses, while some officers began "offering VIP services" for Chinese nationals and casino high rollers, he said.
"I think only about 10 percent of Immigration officials have no involvement in this," he said.
Chiong, who was among the Immigration officials who have been receiving "pastillas," said he decided to expose the modus after watching the Senate's inquiry on how the rise of POGOs in the Philippines led to the proliferation of prostitution in the country.
"Sukdulan na po. Gusto ko talaga i-expose itong nangyayari sa Immigration," he said.
"May karapatan po ang bawat Pilipino na malaman ito since borders natin na kailangan bantayan ang apektado dito," he said.
Senate President Vicente Sotto III guaranteed to grant Chiong immunity from cases since he is a whistleblower, said Sen. Risa Hontiveros who led the Senate Committee on Women, Children, Family Relations and Gender Equality hearing.
Chiong has been placed under the Witness Protection Program after receiving death threats earlier this week.
LACK OF POWER TO DISCIPLINE
Bureau of Immigration Commissioner Jaime Morente told senators that a fact-finding team has been formed to investigate the modus, but noted that his office has no power to discipline tainted officials since these Immigration personnel were appointed by the Department of Justice.
"Medyo limited yung authority given to me by law... I cannot even suspend kasi hindi ako ang appointing authority," he said.
"Ang principle kasi sa civil service, the appointing authority is the dismissing authority," he said.
Hontiveros said her Committee will craft legislation to remedy the Commissioner's Office's lack of power to impose sanctions.
MORENTE WANTS MORE WHISTLEBLOWERS
Morente also encouraged other Immigration officials to report illegal schemes within the agency.
"Sa totoo lang I am very glad that these people are exposed because they give the Bureau a bad name," Morento told reporters after the Senate investigation.
"Yung matitino nating Immigration officers - most of them sacrificed even their own personal safety dahil sa outbreak ng NCOV - it's very unfair to them," he said.
President Rodrigo Duterte earlier ordered the relief of all Immigration officials tagged in the "pastillas" scheme.
“The President considers this anomaly, which some define as the ‘pastillas scheme,’ as a grave form of corruption which cannot be countenanced by the government,” Presidential Spokesperson Salvador Panelo said.
While due process is needed to verify the involvement of these officials in the "pastillas" scheme, Morente said he would welcome the possible dismissal from service of these Immigration officers.
"Kung ma-dismiss yung mga tiwaling official, I would very much welcome it... Kung maalis yung tiwali, tuwang-tuwa lang ako," he said.
"Maraming matitino na Immigration officers natin... Probably he was talking about NAIA airports, but in general I think I can with confidence say na marami tayong matitinong Immigration officers," he said.
Hontiveros said it was "tiresome to hear" that Immigration officials were clueless about the modus that has been ongoing for years, but said that so far, there was no evidence to implicate Morente in the issue.
"Wala pa namang derogatory evidence para sabihin na sangkot si Commissioner Morente pero mabigat ang trabaho niya ngayon," she said.
Panelo earlier told Palace reporters that Morente's fate will be discussed in the next Cabinet meeting.
"As we have repeatedly stressed, there are no sacred cows in this Administration. Any official or employee who commits any wrong in the performance of their respective duties shall be meted out with the punishment that they deserve and in accordance with our penal laws," he said.