Philippine Senate orders arrest of mayor with alleged ties to illegal gambling

Tarlac town Mayor Alice Leal Guo seeks Supreme Court’s help to prevent the Senate from further compelling her to attend hearings
Jason Gutierrez
2024.07.10
Manila
Philippine Senate orders arrest of mayor with alleged ties to illegal gambling
Office of Sen. Risa Hontiveros

The Philippine Senate on Wednesday ordered police to arrest a local mayor with alleged links to illegal gaming operators after she failed to appear before a hearing.

A Senate inquiry had also raised questions about the citizenship of Alice Leal Guo, the mayor of Bamban, a town in Tarlac province. At least one senator accused her of being a Chinese spy, an allegation which she has denied.

Guo’s case has arisen against the backdrop of heightened tensions between Manila and Beijing in their territorial dispute in the South China Sea. Various Philippine security officials had also raised concerns that Beijing could be using illegal gaming operations to stir up trouble in the Southeast Asian country amid the maritime row.

Guo, along with a dozen people including her family members, skipped the Senate hearing into alleged criminal activities involving Philippine offshore gaming operators (POGOs), despite having been subpoenaed.

“This committee is ordering the arrest of the persons cited in contempt to be submitted to the Senate President [Francis Escuero] for his signature,” said Sen. Risa Hontiveros, chairwoman of the Senate panel on women, children, family relations and gender equality, which is conducting the probe.

Hontiveros said Guo had sent a letter to the committee saying she could not attend the hearing due to “health and mental concerns,” but the mayor did not present a medical certificate, raising questions among senators.

“[The] question we want to answer here today, and perhaps the question we are capable of answering: Who is enabling her and these POGOs? Are there protectors within our government?” the senator asked.

POGOs are online gaming firms that cater to foreign customers, especially nationals from China, where gambling is illegal. 

Philippine authorities suspect some POGOs are illegal and serve as fronts for criminal operations.

In February and March, authorities raided two POGOs operating in a Bamban property allegedly owned by Guo’s company. 

Documents presented to the Senate allegedly showed that Guo had personally applied for one of the two firm’s business permits in 2020.

Guo had previously acknowledged that she once owned half of the company that owned the property where the two POGOS were operating. However, Guo said she had divested from the business before running for public office in 2022.

Guo is currently suspended from office after the government filed a graft case against her over her alleged links to POGOs.

On the day the Senate ordered her arrest, Guo’s camp filed a petition before the Supreme Court to prevent the Senate from further compelling her to attend its hearings.

Questions about Guo’s identity

During Wednesday’s hearing, Hontiveros also said a probe conducted by the National Bureau of Investigation had discovered that Guo was a Chinese national named Guo Hua Ping, and therefore she should not have been qualified to run as a mayor in the Philippines.

Guo won the 2022 mayoral election in Bamban, a town in central Luzon.

“Is Guo … an ‘asset’ that China sent to enter our government for them to have an influence in Philippine politics?” Hontiveros asked in an earlier probe. Guo has asserted she is a citizen of the Philippines.

Subject to government regulation, POGOs flourished under the administration of former President Rodrigo Duterte (2016-2022).

POGOs hired at least 69,000 Chinese nationals for their language skills during the previous administration. 

Some lawmakers, however, believe that number may be higher if undocumented Chinese nationals working in POGOs were included.

In recent years, Philippine authorities have accused some POGOs of being involved in various crimes such as human trafficking, hacking, and online scams.

Over 250 POGOs are also suspected to be operating without a license, according to the Philippine Amusement and Gaming Corp. (PAGCOR), a government-owned entity. By comparison, 46 operate legitimately in the country.

Under Duterte, there was a “de facto open door policy for POGOs,” Hontiveros said.

“Let’s see where the evidence takes us, if this time around we would be able to connect the dotted lines all the way to Duterte,” she said, adding there was also evidence linking Duterte’s former spokesperson Harry Roque to a POGO firm.

Duterte could not be reached for comment Wednesday, but Roque denied any wrongdoing and challenged Hontiveros to show proof. 

The Chinese Embassy in Manila did not immediately reply to requests from BenarNews for comment. 

On July 1, officials from Manila and Beijing agreed to boost bilateral cooperation efforts against transnational crimes, including offshore gaming operations in the Philippines.

Last month, National Security Adviser Eduardo Año said the Philippines was monitoring POGOs amid security concerns that China could be involved in illegal gambling operations.

Jeoffrey Maitem contributed to this report from Davao City, southern Philippines.

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