Witness: 90% of Immigration Bureau personnel involved in 'pastillas' scheme

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About ninety percent of Bureau of Immigration personnel are involved in the so-called "pastillas" scheme which allows paid special treatment to Chinese nationals entering the country, a witness from the agency revealed on Thursday. (FILE PHOTO)

Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, February 20) — About ninety percent of Bureau of Immigration personnel are involved in the so-called "pastillas" scheme which allows paid special treatment to Chinese nationals entering the country, a witness from the agency revealed on Thursday.

Immigration officer and whistleblower Allison Chiong appeared before the Senate to testify about the bribery scheme in the bureau. He said only a small fraction of the agency's personnel were not involved in the pay-off scheme.

"Kung bibigyan ko kayo ng parang percentage, para po sa akin mga ten percent na lang 'yung hindi kasama sa modus," he said.

[Translation: If I were to give a percentage, for me, there are only ten percent left who are not involved on the modus]

The payments used to bribe the officers were called "pastillas." Chiong explained the cash used to be hidden in rolled bond paper like the wrapping for the milk candy, but that has since been upgraded to pay envelopes for the release of kickbacks.

Senator Risa Hontiveros, who revealed the pay-off scheme to the public, said the special service was worth ₱10,000. However, Chiong said some high-profile fugitives from China pay as much as ₱50,000 to ₱200,000 for smooth entry to the Philippines.

In the hearing, Chiong also showed photos of an alleged group in the mobile app Viber that has since been deleted, where officers are given the names of Chinese nationals who should receive "VIP" treatment.

The informant added that more or less one-third of low-level employees, such as those tasked to welcome and line up Chinese passengers, were involved in the operation.

He also mentioned several names of officials such as former port operations divisions chief Red Mariñas. Chiong said Mariñas appointed officers whom he called "suppliers of Chinese passengers" and collected the grease money. The operation then evolved, with groups submitting their own names of VIPs which they have worked on with travel agencies in China.

Hontiveros said the Senate will summon Mariñas for the next hearing so he can answer the allegations against him.

This comes as President Rodrigo Duterte ordered the relief of all immigration personnel tagged in the operation. The BI responded moments later, saying 18 officers have been sacked following the order.

The scheme

Chiong said through the pay-off modus, Chinese VIP visitors can dodge screening procedures. The BI usually checks the tourists' return flight, hotel booking, itinerary, proof of financial capacity and previous trips to find any red flags that they might do something illegal in the country.

An example would be previous work experience in Cambodia. Chiong said it serves as a red flag since there was a crackdown of gaming companies in the country. He said he observed about one-third of Chinese visitors with tourist visas had worked in Cambodia.

"Basta po nasa listahan 'yung pangalan, wala nang ibang questions asked na. Tatak kaagad, pasok," he said.

[Translation: As long as their names are on the list, we would no longer ask further questions. We would just stamp and let them enter.]

Before, Chiong said, officers would bring arriving Chinese nationals to a holding area to check if they were on the list of VIPs. However, the officers were afraid of getting caught due to the influx of Chinese passengers in the holding area, so they used the Viber group.

Incumbent Port divisions chief Grifton Medina said he is not aware of the said Viber group among his subordinates.

Chiong added that he came forward to expose the scheme to "free" his colleagues from their involvement in corrupt practices.

"I feel that 'yung mga kasama kong [my fellow] immigration officers, they have been enslaved by this corrupt system and whether or not they were aware of it, biktima din sila [they are also victims], and I wanted to free them from this system - that is why I am making this sacrifice," he said.

Hontiveros later told reporters that Chiong personally approached her to expose the BI. He will be applying for the state witness protection program since he has been receiving death threats, she added.

Limited powers

Commissioner Morente admitted he has limited authority in the appointment of division heads in the bureau.

The commissioner explained that it is the Justice Secretary who assigns the heads of divisions while he submits the shortlist of recommendations, as stated in the Philippine Immigration Law of 1940

"I do not even have disciplinary powers... that 's why I am working for the passing of a new immigration law which would correct the system," said Morente.

Nevertheless, he said he already ordered an investigation into the incident as well as the firing of the personnel shown in Chiong's video.

Hontiveros said there is currently no sufficient evidence to tie Morente to the pastillas scheme. She added that her committee will also look into amending the immigration law.