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Lawmakers seek POGO ban, cite ties to dirty money, kidnapping

PHILIPPINE police in a 2020 raid seized guns and ammunition from a Chinese POGO in Parañaque City that was accused of operating illegally. — THE PHILIPPINE STAR/MIGUEL ANTONIO DE GUZMAN

By Alyssa Nicole O. Tan, Reporterand Beatriz Marie D. Cruz

LAWMAKERS on Tuesday renewed their call for the government to ban offshore gaming operations in the Philippines, saying these have become a breeding ground for illegal activities including kidnapping and money laundering.

“There have been multiple reports of kidnapping and even murder of those working in the industry,” Senator Alan Peter S. Cayetano said in a statement in mixed English and Filipino. “Rather than benefiting the economy, the presence of POGOs has harmed the reputation of our country in the international community.”

Senator Sherwin T. Gatchalian on Monday called out the Philippine Amusement and Gaming Corp. (Pagcor) for failing to regulate POGOs and stem abductions involving mostly Chinese workers in the Philippines.

During a Senate hearing, Senator Sherwin T. Gatchalian said the regulator had yet to act on a kidnapping incident more than a month since it happened on Dec. 14.

Senator Mary Grace S. Poe-Llamanzares in a privilege speech last month detailed an incident where a victim — a friend of her sister-in-law — was tricked into applying for a job that eventually sold her to Chinese nationals.

Pagcor Assistant Vice-President Jessa Mariz R. Fernandez told the hearing they had yet to coordinate with other agencies about the incident, adding that the company involved had been fined.

She said they could suspend or cancel the accreditation of implicated licensees and service providers, as well as deport and file charges against foreign nationals involved.

The Senate ways and means committee is investigating criminal activities involving POGOs and the revenue that the government gets from them. Some senators have said the system is “marred by dodgy contracts and third-party service providers that lack the required experience.”

Mr. Gatchalian, head of the body, again chided Pagcor for failing to comply with its own terms when it entered into a P6-billion contract with a third-party auditor consortium.

“Let’s not forget the crucial role of the third-party auditor in determining the taxes and regulatory fees of POGOs,” he said in a statement.

Mr. Gatchalian said the auditor did not meet the required operating capital of at least P1 billion

The consortium had submitted a bank guarantee in its favor worth $25 million (P1.4 billion), the bank was not registered in the country, he said, citing the Philippine central bank. It’s offices were fictitious and the company did not get building permits, he added.

“How come nobody saw this?” Mr. Gatchalian asked. “How did it get past you? It’s either you were swindled or you allowed yourselves to be swindled,” according to the statement, citing his remarks at Monday’s hearing.

Meanwhile, Party-list Rep. France L. Castro also urged the government to ban POGOs, which she said could be used for “expansionist military and political purposes.”

In a statement, the lawmaker noted that in 2020, Philippine police during a raid had seized guns and ammunition from a Chinese POGO that was operating illegally.

Police also found 400 mobile phones, 17 desktop computers, 36 laptops, nine modems and more than P1.3 million in cash. They also found 73 Chinese passports, Ms. Castro said.

“It’s either this group is part of a criminal syndicate in China or part of covert operations to subvert our laws and sovereignty,” she said.

Some POGO workers had also admitted having done underground work for the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) of China, while two Chinese murder suspects with PLA IDs were caught in March 2021, she added, citing a Senate investigation.

“Yet, despite billions of intelligence funds, all we hear from the security sector is that they are still validating these suspected PLA covert activities,” Ms. Castro said.

POGOs have been linked to crimes such prostitution, gambling, money laundering, tax evasion and kidnapping, she said.

President Ferdinand R. Marcos Jr. last week said he wanted to find a good reason to ban offshore gaming operators in the Philippines.

“These POGOs are not only skirting their own national laws, particularly of China which outlaws gambling,” Ms. Castro said. They are also manipulating the system by failing to pay taxes, she added.

The Pasig City government recently banned all offshore gaming operators, giving them until the end of this year to close shop.

Senator Sherwin T. Gatchalian recently called out the Philippine Amusement and Gaming Corporation for failing to regulate POGOs following a kidnapping accident on December 14.

The Philippine National Police Anti-Kidnapping Group in a Viber message said there have been 18 POGO-related kidnapping incidents since January 2022.

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