President Rodrigo Duterte fired a group of immigration officials linked to a bribery scheme where border control officers allegedly allowed Chinese nationals working in the booming online gaming industry to enter the Philippines illegally, his spokesman said Thursday.
Sen. Risa Hontiveros exposed the scandal during a legislative inquiry earlier this week, when she charged that an undetermined number of immigration officials had taken bribes of up to 10,000 pesos (U.S. $185) rolled up in bond paper to allow the Chinese in.
“President Rodrigo Roa Duterte has relieved all officials and employees of the Bureau of Immigration who are allegedly involved in the latest bribery scheme where they purportedly facilitated the entry into or exit from Philippine territory of foreigners working for POGO or Philippine Offshore Gaming Operators for an unauthorized fee,” presidential spokesman Salvador Panelo told reporters.
He said Duterte considered the issue an “anomaly” and a “grave form of corruption” that should not be tolerated.
“As we have repeatedly stressed, there are no sacred cows in this administration,” Panelo said. “Any official or employee who commits any wrongdoing, any transgression of the law in the performance of their respective duties will be meted with punishment.”
Questions raised over anti-corruption fight
Duterte, 74, was elected president in 2016 on a promise to end drug trafficking in the nation and government corruption. His anti-narcotics campaign has left thousands of suspects dead, and he faces two charges of murder before an international court.
So far he has lagged behind in fighting corruption, despite making a big show of firing officials known as his close allies.
Duterte fired Nicanor Faeldon as customs chief for failing to stop the entry of a large shipment of illegal drugs into the country, only to reappoint him to the corrections bureau.
He let go of Jose Gabriel La Viña, who had helped in his election campaign, as commissioner of the country’s Social Security System on corruption allegations, but later resurrected him as tourism undersecretary.
Panelo on Thursday did not name the immigration officials that Duterte had dismissed, but said that Immigration Commissioner Jaime Morente was expected at a cabinet meeting next week to explain. Morente is close to Duterte, having once led the police force in Davao City, the president’s southern hometown.
“I welcome the cleanup of the Bureau of Immigration,” Sen. Hontiveros said. “We need to protect the innocent, ensure that our borders are protected [and] go after the big fish.”
Hontiveros warned that she was summoning more people to appear before the Senate inquiry. On Thursday, she summoned a witness, immigration officer Allison “Alex” Chiong, who linked 18 of his colleagues to the scandal.
“We are not taking this lightly,” immigration spokesman Dana Sandoval said, adding that Chiong’s revelations were “deeply alarming.”
“We will ensure that we will take every measure to destroy this system of corruption, and impose the harshest penalties to erring personnel,” she said.
Chiong, during Thursday’s Senate hearing, said the corrupt practice came to be known among immigration officials as the “pastillas” racket, a reference to a local milk candy wrapped in bond paper, similar to how the cash payments were allegedly made – inside rolled up paper.
“I feel that my fellow immigration officers have been enslaved by this corrupt system,” Chiong said. “Whether or not they were aware of it, they are also victims. I want to free them that’s why I’m making this sacrifice.”
The inquiry was launched amid concerns over the rise of illegal Chinese workers in the country. There have been police reports that many of the workers in Manila have also been forced into sex slavery, serving mostly a Chinese clientele.
The immigration bureau had earlier said there were more than 200,000 Chinese nationals working in the Philippines, most of whom are employed in the gaming industry.
Their sudden rise in numbers here has been blamed by nationalist groups to Duterte’s pro-China stance. The influx has also presented a national security concern, with the defense department last year warning that the proximity of casinos to military installations could be used as a cover by Beijing to spy on the Philippine government.