Ex-DOJ chief Vitaliano Aguirre tagged as protector of 'pastillas' scheme

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Former Justice Secretary Vitaliano Aguirre II (FILE PHOTO)

Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, March 2) — Former Justice Secretary Vitaliano Aguirre II reportedly protected the "pastillas" scheme in the Bureau of Immigration and has been receiving his share from the grease money even after leaving office, columnist Ramon Tulfo said Monday.

Citing the account made by whistleblower Allison "Alex" Chiong, Tulfo told senators that Aguirre was the "protector" of the illegal scheme that allowed Chinese nationals to pay their way for easy entry to the Philippines.

"Siya po ang protektor ng sindikato base sa ni-report sa akin ni Mr. Chiong [He is the protector of the syndicate based on what Mr Chiong reported to me]," Tulfo told the Senate Committee on Women, Children, Family Relations and Gender Equality.

The bureau is under the watch of the Department of Justice.

Tulfo first revealed irregularities within the BI in an April 2019 column, during the time Filipinas were being sent abroad as prostitutes but were cleared by Immigration officers to leave the country for a fee.

In a column last month, Tulfo also claimed that Aguirre received kickbacks from the scheme via a chartered helicopter, which is used to send cash from Manila — where the supposed syndicate operates — to his province in Mulanay, Quezon, which is six hours away by land.

Aguirre denied backing the illegal scheme, saying that he has filed libel charges against Tulfo and would be suing him again.

"The charges of Ramon Tulfo is an absolute lie and a complete fabrication of Tulfo," he said in a text message. "For repeating these falsities, I will write the Senate committee of Senator Hontiveros to invite me and Tulfo if there is any future hearing so I could refute them and tell Tulfo to his face that he is liar... Kahit saan, I could face anybody for I am completely innocent of his charges."

An earlier witness — a Taiwanese woman brought to Manila to work for a online gambling company — named a certain "Michael Yang" as the "very powerful" backer of Chinese POGO firms in the Philippines. A Davao-based businessman Michael Yang once served as President Rodrigo Duterte's economic adviser until the end of 2018, but it is unclear if he was the one being referred to.

Under the "pastillas" scheme revealed by Chiong, an immigration officer, Chinese nationals pay ₱10,000 as "service fee" or grease money for special treatment as they enter the Philippines. He earlier said that only ₱2,000 paid by each foreigner goes to immigration officers, while the remainder is split among the foreign tour operator, its partner in the Philippines, and the syndicate running the entire ploy at the Ninoy Aquino International Airport. The money was initially paid out rolled inside a sheet of bond paper, similar to how the milk candy is packed — thus, the moniker.

READ: Removal of overtime pay of immigration officers led to the ‘pastillas’ scheme

Chiong said kickbacks go as high as ₱20,000 per week for immigration officers assigned in NAIA Terminal 1, which receives the most number of flights from China. He added that he received payouts for several years before he decided to run to Tulfo and eventually, to the Senate, for his tell-all tale.

Immigration Deputy Commissioner Tobias Javier said initial investigations showed that the list of names of Chinese nationals and their dates of arrival matched the bureau's records. Despite this, Immigration employees whose names were included in the Viber group chat where the lists are distributed denied being part of the process.

Marc Red Mariñas, who has been accused as one of the men behind the "pastillas" scheme, admitted that he was appointed by Aguirre as head of the bureau's Port Operations Division in 2016. He denied knowing the scheme, but Chiong said it was impossible for him not to know.

Mariñas also belied Chiong's claims, saying the video to supposedly expose the scheme was taken with malice. "An ordinary, innocent standard procedure in the course of primary inspection of arriving passengers was twisted to suit his intention of passing it to the committee as evidence of corruption," he told the Senate body. "Hindi po ganito ang nangyayari at hindi po ito ginagawa ng ating Immigration officers."

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

Commitee chair Senator Risa Hontiveros showed a photo of a yellow helicopter that carried several passengers including Mariñas. Tulfo said that chopper was often spotted in Mulanay — Aguirre's hometown — with a local saying that the vehicle would sometimes make two trips in a month. However, Mariñas said he only boarded that helicopter once, and it was to attend festivities at the nearby town of San Narciso.

His father, Maynardo Mariñas, also served as chief of the Special Operations and Communications Unit. Immigration Deputy Commissioner Tobias Javier said having a father-son tandem in the bureau was "outside the norm."

A department order issued by Aguirre in August 2017 gave the younger Mariñas the authority over the issuance and review of applications for visa upon arrival, which is a special arrangement for Chinese nationals. Hontiveros said he had been so "favored" in the bureau.

Mariñas left the BI in October 2018 when he ran for Muntinlupa mayor, but lost during the 2019 elections. He was asked how much he spent during the campaign, but said he could not recall the amount.

Hontiveros said the body will recommend a lifestyle check for Immigration officials, as she pointed out that some of the accused have assets beyond what their salaries were in the bureau. The Senate will invite Aguirre to air his side on the issue, she added.