MANILA, Philippines — Sen. Risa Hontiveros has called on the National Bureau of Investigation to pin down the travel agency allegedly involved in the new “pastillas” scheme at the Bureau of Immigration that allows seamless entry of Chinese nationals into the country for a fee.
“Travel agencies have long been cohorts in corruption of BI in allowing illegal entry of Chinese nationals. There is already a pandemic but the abusive continues to enjoy,” Hontiveros said in Filipino.
This comes after the NBI last week conducted an entrapment operation inside the bureau’s office and arrested Vivian Lara, a liaison officer who was caught receiving P900,000 to process the entry of three Chinese nationals into the country.
The Chinese nationals were said to be clients of the travel agency.
Hontiveros again called for an overhaul in the bureau. She added: “There are Chinese nationals who have criminal records that enter the country because of conspiracy among travel agency and other corrupt BI personnel.”
Immigration Commissioner Jaime Morente said over the weekend that he has ordered a creation of a fact-finding committee to investigate the incident. Lara has also been banned from entering any BI office and the bureau's accreditation of her employer, Calalang Law Office, has been suspended indefinitely.
The BI chief also said they are looking into an alleged breach in security protocols as Lara was able to enter her premises despite having an expired ID and her using a government office for a transaction.
“We are coordinating with the NBI in this investigation to see if there are any cohorts inside the Bureau, and to strengthen protocols to prevent illegal fixers from extorting aliens,” Morente added.
The pastillas scheme was uncovered in a Senate legislative probe led by Hontiveros in early 2020. Under the racket, immigration officers allegedly received P10,000 grease money, rolled in paper that look like the milk candy pastillas, for each Chinese national allowed to breeze through passport checks.
At least 44 Immigration officers have since been suspended since and a second complaint has been filed with 86 employees named as respondents.
"This is a direct threat to our national security. We've already established that Chinese syndicates have exploited our women and children, among many other unspeakable crimes,” Hontiveros said.
She added that fake passports and counterfeit government documents processed through travel agencies have allowed them entry to the country.
Hontiveros then renewed her call to permanently abolish the Visa Upon Arrival (VUA) system for Chinese nationals, which she claims is what most syndicates use to traffic women into the country, adding that Chinese visitors must only enter the Philippines though channels monitored by the Department of Foreign Affairs.
Visas Upon Arrival are granted to Chinese tourists screened by Department of Tourism-accredited tour operators in China and vetted by the BI. The VUA has been suspended due to the coronavirus pandemic.
"The VUA should be terminated. The rotten official of BI should be axed. Travel agencies should be made liable,” she added. — Kristine Joy Patag