MANILA, Philippines — Just like in 2020's pastillas scandal, it was personnel of the Bureau of Immigration who were linked to the Filipinos trafficked and forced to be part of a Chinese syndicate's All-Filipino group of trained scammers, Sen. Risa Hontiveros said Tuesday.
This comes as the latest in the senator's expose of a large-scale human trafficking operation by the Chinese mafia that she earlier said primarily recruited Filipinos for their English-speaking skills and enticed them with high-paying telemarketing jobs abroad.
"The plot gets thicker. And not only does the plot thicken, it looks like we have heard this plot before. It feels like I have déjà vu," Hontiveros said in Filipino in her opening statement at Tuesday's hearing of the Senate Committee on Women, Children, Family Relations and Gender Equality.
"It seems that the Chinese Mafia syndicate is not the only one to blame here, although they are the main villain, there are also immigration employees involved. It's like Pastillas Part 2, but worse and more intense."
It was also Hontiveros who unearthed what came to be known as the pastillas scheme in the 18th Congress, under which immigration officers allegedly received P10,000 in grease money, rolled in paper resembling the wrapper of the popular milk-based confection, for each Chinese national allowed to breeze through passport checks in the country's airports.
Ninoy Aquino International Airport General Manager Lauro Francisco was also invited to the hearing, Hontiveros said, but the former sent a communication to the committee secretary saying he would not be able to make it after he caught COVID-19.
At the Senate panel's hearing, officials of the immigration bureau were asked: How could its employees' participation in the operation go on undetected once again?
BI Commissioner Norman Tansingco said that the passengers were given a fake monthly pass stamped with the logo of the Manila International Airport Authority, which manages the terminals of the NAIA.
"The modus is, obviously, they have the [passengers] check in first and they don't let them leave. They're given a fake name, an ID, and stamped boarding pass. And they meet them outside the airport with the agent," he said, citing the bureau's internal investigations.
He added that the agent they were looking into was male, tall, with slim complexion, and wearing black shorts and a blue cap.
So how were these fake passes allowed to slip through unintercepted? "I believe that is now the responsibility of the airport security," he said in Filipino.
Hontiveros then presented screenshots of text messages with supposed recruiters. One OFW who sensed something was off refused to get on the flight and had the tickets canceled eventually discovered that his passport was also voided.
Upon telling the recruiter this, the unnamed OFW was told: "Once you've calmed down, call me. That is voided now because you canceled your flight. And the one who voided that is an employee of the [Ninoy Aquino International Airport] which is an immigration officer who signed off on it."
Hontiveros also presented a photo of the fake pass, which gives the passengers access to the delivery bay under the company name: "WHSMITH Comfort Food." Tansingco was not able to answer questions about the supposed company.
'I went with it anyway'
Hontiveros on Tuesday presented two such overseas Filipino workers who were roped into the trafficking scam and eventually rescued: Alias "Baby" and Alias "Paulo", both of whom were scammed with offers of call center and customer service jobs based in Thailand supposedly offering up to P50,000 in salary.
Baby in her affidavit submitted to Hontiveros' office told of a longwinding journey to get to her new employers. First, they took a plane from Manila to Zamboanga, where they spent three days. Then they took a ship to Tawi-Tawi, where they got on a speedboat to Kota Kinabalu in Malaysia. They slept in a hut for a day until they were fetched in a van. On the road trip, they switched vehicles thrice until they arrived at Miri. There, they took a flight to Kuala Lumpur only to take another flight to Bangkok.
Another long road trip in Bangkok, where they switched rides three times once again until they got on a riverboat, saw Baby finally arrive at the operation's compound in a forest.
Only then did she realize what she was brought in to do. She also corroborated the accounts of Rita, the first OFW who was rescued from the mafia's operation in Myanmar.
They were given a quota to scam foreigners, and the ones who couldn't fulfill that quota were subjected to harsh treatment. Others were stabbed to death by their Chinese handlers.
"Binigyan kami ng profile picture na aming gagamitin. Kakausapin namin ang mga client, kakaibiganin at hihikayatin na mag-invest sa cryptocurrency. Kailangan namin sila utuin. Scammer pala ang trabaho namin," she said.
(We were given a profile picture to use. We were made to talk to clients, make friends with them, and encourage them to invest in cryptocurrency. We were told we need to trick them. It turned out our job is a scammer.)
"Hindi ka pwedeng hindi sumunod, kung hindi ilalagay ka sa isang black room o bartolina. Pinagbubuhat din ako ng mga brick stone ng apat na oras. Kung hindi latigo ay kukuryentihin ka. Pagkababa ng brick stone ay papatakbuhin ka. Kapag mabagal ka tumakbo ay babatuhin ka ng bola ng basketball."
(You can't disobey, otherwise you'll be put in a black room or dungeon. They also made me lift brick stones for four hours. If you don't get whipped, you will be electrocuted. After the brick stone comes down you will be made to run. If you run slowly throw a basketball at you.)
Paulo said that he was surprised to find that he ended up in Myanmar after his supposedly Thai handler gave him tickets for a flight that was headed to Mae Sot, Thailand.
The Bureau of Immigration later found that Paulo, using his real name, did not have any travel records after his rescue.
BI Commissioner Tansingco also said at the hearing that Laisa Magallanes, the supposed BI official who tended to his concerns, was not actually among its employees. "We have confirmation from our personnel section that Laisa Magallanes is not a member of the Bureau of Immigration."
Yet at the end of the day, Paulo said that even after everything was explained to him, he didn't feel like he had a choice: "Napapayag pa din ako gawa nga ng hirap ng buhay." (I went with it anyway because of how hard life was.)
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