Surigao del Norte Rep. Robert Ace Barbers (File photo)

MANILA – A ranking House leader on Wednesday warned against the ill effects of the operations of Philippine Offshore Gaming Operators (POGOs) in the country, saying that offshore gaming undermines the government's battle against illegal drugs, graft and corruption, money-laundering, and other gambling-related crimes.

Surigao del Norte Representative Robert Ace Barbers, chairperson of the House Committee on Dangerous Drugs, reiterated his longstanding opposition to POGO operations in the Philippines, arguing that it would only pose social and security concerns for the country.

“I had long held that, prior to the spread of Covid-19 virus in March 2020, that there are serious effects on the POGOs online gambling operations to our war against money laundering, criminality, graft and corruption and illegal drugs,” Barbers said.

Amid the recent spate of kidnapping and abduction cases in the country, Barbers pointed out that as early as November 2019, the Philippine National Police (PNP) Anti-Kidnapping Group’s data showing around 31 kidnap-for-ransom (KFR) cases involving Chinese nationals from 2017 to 2019.

He noted that most of the cases transpired in the vicinity of the so-called “Entertainment City” where casinos and on-line gaming are located.

Aside from abduction cases, crimes such as murder, prostitution, torture, extortion, usurious loan-shark, suicide, and illegal drug trafficking involving Chinese nationals transpired during said period, he added.

Barbers said there had been indications in the past that Chinese drug syndicates are utilizing online gambling facilities as “fronts” for their illegal trade based on police reports.

He cited a case in January 2017 wherein lawmen raided a condominium unit along Roxas Boulevard in Pasay City and arrested 25 Chinese nationals and seized two kilos of shabu.

"Money laundering by suspected Chinese drug syndicates are allegedly being conducted through gambling at the local casinos or actual ‘brick and mortar’ gambling; and through the online or internet gambling," he said.

He also warned that online gambling has the potential capacity to “revolutionize’ or re-invent the money laundering processes that undoubtedly promotes illegal drug trade and other organized crime activities.

“This is because the nature of the Internet, including other Apps such as the Dark Net, allows transactions to occur almost instantaneously and with anonymity, thereby allowing the criminal launderer to avoid detection. The online gambling being operated by POGOs may even be worse than the traditional casino gambling operations,” he said.

Philippine Amusement and Gaming Corporation (PAGCOR) justified POGOs’ presence and operations by saying and projecting that said firms could generate more than PHP37 billion annually to finance local infrastructure and socio-civic development projects.

Barbers, however, cited latest reports stating that the government, through the Bureau of Internal Revenue was only able to collect PHP3 billion from POGO operations this year.

In a media interview, Justice Secretary Jesus Crispin “Boying” Remulla said around 280 illegal POGO employees will be deported.

Remulla said he is currently in talks with Chinese Ambassador to the Philippines Huang Xilian regarding the deportation of POGO employees.

Iloilo Representative Janette Garin, meanwhile, called on Congress to craft a law banning POGOs amid the recent spate of kidnappings and abductions in the country.

Garin said the reported abduction cases have "immensely affected" the image of the Philippines and have been driving away investors.

“Now that we are opening up our economy and kidnapping and human trafficking headlining our daily news, it is driving away investors considering that it’s creating a misinformation that the Philippines is not safe,” Garin said.

Garin made the statement after the Philippine National Police-Anti-Kidnapping Group (AKG) rescued 42 Chinese nationals who were detained within a POGO establishment in an operation in Angeles City, Pampanga.

She said while POGOs in the country have been regarded as the "knight in shining armor" by the PAGCOR for providing additional revenues for the government, the crime happening outweighs the benefits to the country.

‘It has become a door to several crimes. The Philippine Offshore Gaming Operators hubs have become havens for undesirable aliens, drug and human trafficking, prostitution and other crime syndicates for money laundering and illicit operations,” Garin said.

She also supported Finance Secretary Benjamin Diokno's earlier statement to discontinue POGOs due to their "reputational risk."

“China and Cambodia have banned gambling because of the ill-effects it had brought and the Philippines should learn from their experience. We should not disregard the negative and deleterious effects that have risen with the continued operation of POGO in our country,” Garin said.

She noted that as of 2019, an estimated 138,000 Chinese nationals are reportedly working in Manila-based POGOs with 83,760 of them being holders of special work permits which allowed them to stay in the country for as long as six months.

However, she said only 17 percent of those employed in POGOs are Filipino nationals. The number could be higher though since there are estimated to be at least 200 POGOs operating without a permit. (PNA)