Senator Ronald "Bato" dela Rosa (File photo)

MANILA – The Senate on Thursday initiated its inquiry into the rising number of missing persons allegedly involved in sabong (cockfighting) and its online version, with lawmakers recommending to the Philippine Amusement and Gaming Corp. (Pagcor) the suspension of licenses of e-sabong operators.

Senate Committee on Public Order and Dangerous Drugs chair Ronald “Bato” dela Rosa presiding over the proceedings expressed alarm over the incidents involving 31 individuals who were reported missing by their relatives and family in the past months after they visited cockpit arenas in Manila and Southern Luzon.

"Whatever they did, this cannot be more important than their lives," Dela Rosa said during the proceedings as he heard the emotional narration by relatives of the missing who complained over the refusal of the security personnel of concerned cockpits to cooperate.

Senate President Vicente Sotto III proposed a resolution to Pagcor to suspend all the licenses of e-sabong operators “until we find an acceptable conclusion to what’s happening to these 31 missing personalities.”

Senator Panfilo Lacson, meanwhile, echoed Sotto’s motion and urged that the suspension covers the operations and existing e-sabong licenses of Belvedere Vista Corp., Lucky 8 Star Quest Inc., Visayas Cockers Club Inc., Jade Entertainment And Gaming Technologies, Inc., Newin Cockers Alliance Gaming Corp., Philippine Cockfighting International Inc., and Golden Buzzer, Inc.

Acting vice president of E-Sabong Licensing Department of Pagcor, Diane Erica Jogno, who was present during the hearing said they have no objections to the proposal to suspend the e-sabong permits.

Dela Rosa noted that a particular cockpit in Sta. Cruz, Laguna, the Sta. Cruz WPM Arena is particularly "notorious" for being the site of missing individuals numbering 23 in four cases.

"Isipin ninyo yung pulis na napakalaki ng sweldo, sila ang otoridad nakagawa pa ng krimen dahil sa pagkalulong sa e-sabong. How much more yung ordinaryong tao na walang stable job? So ito ay dapat pagtuunan natin ng pansin talaga kung paano ma-address ang addiction sa e-sabong (Even police officers, authorities get involved in crimes because of e-sabong more so ordinary people who have no stable jobs. So we need to address the addiction to e-sabong),” Dela Rosa said during the proceedings.

Dela Rosa also heard testimonies from police officials about a patrolman who was nabbed for a string of robberies in Southern Luzon. The police officer then revealed that he incurred debts of up to PHP1 million due to e-sabong addiction.

Philippine National Police (PNP) chief Gen. Dionardo Carlos said the police is consistent in going after illegal cockfights.

During the hearing, lawyer Angelo Niño Santos, president of Lucky 8 Star Quest Inc. which runs the popular Pitmaster Live, identified game-fixing schemes including intentionally crippling cocks before the fight or having them take medicine the night before to lessen their strength during the fights.

Santos also defended the absence of closed-circuit television (CCTV) security cameras in arenas run by his firm, but said the matter is presently being resolved.

"Ngayon lang po nangyari sa amin itong ganito (This is new for us)," he said, referring to the missing cockfighting enthusiasts.

Meanwhile, Senator Aquilino “Koko” Pimentel III said the brazenness of the individual or group behind the disappearances seems to project that they are as powerful as the PNP.

"We cannot allow such a person, a group or a syndicate to continue to exist," Pimentel said.

Sen. Grace Poe, chairperson of the Committee on Public Service, said there is a need to determine the pros and cons in granting franchises to online gambling operators.

She also said the taxes being paid by the franchise holders could fund the government’s programs such as the Universal Health Care program.

Sen. Francis "Tol" Tolentino, meanwhile, questioned whether Pagcor has the legal authority to regulate and issue licenses to "e-sabong" or the remote betting on live-streamed cockfighting matches.

"I don't see any legal authority, some authority, coming from law, or from Congress, that gives you the right to issue licenses for e-sabong," Tolentino said. (PNA)