RESCUED. More than 40 foreign nationals who were reportedly forced to work at a Philippine Offshore Gaming Operations company in Angeles City, Pampanga are rescued on Saturday (Sept. 17, 2022). The company, Lucky South 99 Outsourcing Inc., was ordered closed by the Department of the Interior and Local Government, and the Philippine Amusement and Gaming Corporation. (Photo courtesy of PRO-3)

CITY OF SAN FERNANDO, Pampanga – A Philippine Offshore Gaming Operations (POGO) company in Angeles City, this province, was closed by the Department of the Interior and Local Government (DILG) and the Philippine Amusement and Gaming Corporation (Pagcor) on Saturday.

The operation led by DILG Secretary Benhur Abalos, together with Police Regional Office-3 (PRO-3) director Brig. Gen. Cesar Pasiwen and other police officials, shut down the illegal POGO establishment Lucky South 99 Outsourcing Inc. along Fil-Am Friendship Highway, Angeles City.

Some 40 foreign workers were rescued in the operation, who were reportedly being forced to work in the company.

The operation was conducted in coordination with the Philippine National Police, Department of Justice, and National Bureau of Investigation aimed at putting an end to the POGO-related kidnappings and human trafficking cases in the country.

The rescued POGO workers will be turned over to the Bureau of Immigration for the checking of their documents and working permits.

An investigation is still ongoing to check if other officers of Lucky South 99 Outsourcing Inc. were working for a human trafficking syndicate targeting Chinese and other foreign nationals.

Also ongoing are follow-up operations to find out if there are similar cases in other POGOs.

Pasiwen said in a statement that the Central Luzon police is continuously intensifying its intelligence efforts amid the reported abduction and human trafficking involving POGOs in the region.

On September 14, a total of 43 foreign nationals were also rescued while a Chinese national was arrested during a rescue operation in the same POGO firm.

Pasiwen said operatives of the PNP Anti-Kidnapping Group (AKG) rescued the alleged victim, Wu Jia Ming, together with 42 others, inside the premises of Lucky South 99 Outsourcing Inc. and arrested Chen Yi Ben, 33, human resource officer of the company.

The operation stemmed from information received by AKG about foreign nationals being employed but detained in a POGO in the area which resulted in the closure of the firm.

Community participation

Abalos urged the public to report illegal activities in their areas even as he questioned the unlicensed operation of Lucky South 99.

"How could you operate, while you don't have a license for several years? So that's it, it's illegal. In the meantime, tinutugis ng ating mga kapulisan ang mga iba pang implicated dito. Of course, tayo to exact accountability is, ginawa natin yung sulat sa Pagcor at sa Securities and Exchange Commission para matukoy natin kung sino talaga dapat managot (In the meantime, our police officers are looking for the others involved in this. Of course, let's have an accountability, we wrote letter to Pagcor and the Securities and Exchange Commission so that we can determine who should be held accountable)," he said in a statement.

Abalos said aside from the over 40 foreign workers rescued during the raid, 200 others were found in a hotel, most of whom were undocumented and had no passports. He said he will seek assistance from the Bureau of Immigration to check their visas.

“Sisiguruhin natin na lahat sila ay ma-document nang maigi ng Bureau of Immigration kasi baka mamaya mabiktima na naman sila. Hindi ito tungkol sa Filipino o Chinese. Bawat buhay maprotektahan natin. Iyon ang importante dito (We will make sure that all of them are properly documented by the Bureau of Immigration because they might become victims again later. This is not about Filipino or Chinese. We can protect every life. That is what is important here),” Abalos said.

The DILG chief reminded the public to cooperate with the police in order to suppress this type of criminality.

This is a strong statement sa mga kaibigan natin, hindi lamang sa dito sa Pampanga, kundi sa lahat. Magsumbong kaagad kayo sa kapulisan. Magtulungan tayo. Huwag kayong matakot. Ambilis umaksyon ng kapulisan natin. Wala pa sigurong mga 12 hours, na-solve kaagad nila ang isang kidnapping case sa lugar na ito kamakailan lamang. At hindi kami titigil dito. Tandaan nyo yan (This is a strong statement to our friends, not only here in Pampanga, but to all. Report to the police immediately. Let's work together. Don't be afraid. Our police took action quickly. In less than 12 hours, they solved a kidnapping case in this area recently. And we won't stop here. Remember that)," Abalos said.

Eradicate POGO

Meanwhile, in a radio interview on Sunday, Senator Imee Marcos confirmed she had suggested to President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. the discontinuation of POGO operations.

"Sa palagay ko, i-wind down na. Napag-usapan na nga namin ‘yan nung birthday nya [President Marcos] kasi pumunta kami sa (I think, it has to be winded down. We have talked about it during his birthday because we went to) Malacañang," the senator said.

She said POGO has to be stopped from causing further trouble.

"Sinabi ko talaga ‘yun, alam ko na ayaw nya [President Marcos] sa e-sabong. Sabi ko pareho rin eh. Kikita ka nga (I really said that. I know he does not like e-sabong either. I said it's the same. You'd earn), supposedly maliit pala ‘yung kita. Magulo pa ‘yung bansa (but in a smaller income and the country is in a mess)," she said.

The senator said she found an ally in Department of Finance Secretary Benjamin Diokno who said the earnings, compared to the reputational risk, are not worth it.

"So, pareho pala kami. Hindi sulit ung krimen (We're on the same page. The crime is not worth it), social cost, ‘yung gulo na hinahasik ng POGO sa atin, kung ihahambing natin sa kinikita ng gobyerno (the trouble that POGO creates, if we compare it with government income), " the lawmaker said.

The chair of the Committee on Foreign Relations asserted that “winding down” POGO operations will not affect the Philippine-China connection.

"Bawal sa kanila ‘yang POGO talaga (They really prohibit POGO). Ilang beses na silang nagsabi na tigilan na 'yan. Syempre hindi sila nakikialam. Hindi naman sila manghihimasok dahil alam nila na (How many times have they asked to stop that? They will not interfere because they know) we have a gambling regime, meron tayong batas na nagsasaad na may Pagcor, may PCSO. Wala silang say kasi batas natin ‘yun (we have laws that say that there is Pagcor, there is PCSO. They can't do anything about it because that's our law)," she added.

Pagcor and the Philippine Charity Sweepstakes Office (PCSO) regulate gaming, with percentage of their revenues going to the national treasury and spent on health programs, medical assistance and services, and other charities of national character.

Dialogue

On Friday, National Capital Region Police Office chief Brig. Gen. Jonnel Estomo presided over a dialogue with POGO operators at Camp Bagong Diwa in Taguig City regarding alleged POGO and casino-related kidnapping, serious illegal detention, robbery and other related crime incidents.

The dialogue included an assessment on alleged continuing threats against employees and crimes against mostly Chinese and other foreign nationals which, if not abated, might cause more serious peace and order and economic concerns in the country.

Among the matters discussed were experiences by the participants who allegedly witnessed illegal detention cases within their establishment but failed to report for fear of reprisal; law enforcement operations in POGO establishments that were alleged to amount to harassment; safety and security of employees, both foreign and local; and other schemes/modus operandi of suspects victimizing POGO staff/employees that were treated with confidentiality.

Estomo urged them to dedicate full cooperation to ensure a peaceful and smooth flow of operation which equates to greater employment opportunities and continuing tax collection on the part of the government.

"To protect legitimate businesses from lawless elements equates to the protection of the economy. Hence, we commit to protect legitimate business operations to help ensure that our economy will thrive," he said. (PNA)