Crackdown on illegal Philippine offshore gaming operators widens


The police is checking the authenticity of several sets of Chinese military uniforms and a medal recovered during a raid on an illegal Philippine offshore gaming operator hub in Porac, Pampanga, last week as part of a crackdown on unlicensed Pogos in the country. — Courtesy of Presidential Anti-organised Crime Commission

MABALACAT CITY: The newly installed Pampanga police director on Thursday (June 13) vowed to go after illegal Philippine offshore gaming operators (Pogos) that might be clandestinely operating in the province.

Police Col. Jay Dimaandal said his very first order to all 21 city and municipal police chiefs in Pampanga was to inspect all compounds and buildings in their respective areas of responsibility.

“There might be fenced compounds or buildings that might be hosting or being used as Pogo hubs,” he said.

Dimaandal said the inspection would be done in coordination with the local government units (LGUs). He invoked the power of “police visitation” and the right of LGUs to inspect all commercial establishments in their jurisdictions.

He made the statement while authorities were launching a crackdown on illegal Pogos as calls to ban their activities mounted due to their alleged links to criminal syndicates.

Alejandro Tengco, the chair of the state gaming regulator, Philippine Amusement and Gaming Corp. (Pagcor), said on Thursday that around 250 to 300 Pogos were operating in the Philippines without a licence, six times more than the 46 legitimate operators.

“Together with the police, we search for these illegal operators, conduct raids, and shut them down,” Tengco told the Reuters news agency.

The online gaming industry emerged in 2016 and grew exponentially as operators capitalised on the country’s liberal gaming laws to target customers in China, where gambling is banned.

At their peak, Pogos totalled 300 and employed more than 300,000 Chinese workers. But the pandemic and tighter tax rules have forced many to relocate or go underground, Tengco said.

The ongoing crackdown was triggered by reports of Pogo-related crimes such as human trafficking, torture, kidnapping and fraudulent activities like credit card, crypto investment, and “love scams” — when criminals adopt fake online identities to persuade victims to give them money.

Recently, several lawmakers cited possible security threats from Pogos.

Police Regional Office 3 (PRO3) chief Brig Gen Jose Hidalgo Jr appointed Dimaandal as the new Pampanga police chief on Wednesday.

Dimaandal replaced Police Col. Hope Basilio, less than a week after authorities led by the Presidential Anti-Organized Crime Commission (Paocc) raided an illegal Pogo hub in Porac town on June 4.

The PRO3 public information office said Basilio was relieved on Monday as an “administrative measure” to give way to an impartial investigation of the alleged illegal operation of the Pogo company Lucky South 99 since late last year, even without a necessary permit or licence from the government.

Last week, the Philippine National Police relieved Porac police chief Lt Col Palmyra Guardaya.

The PNP wanted to determine whether there was negligence or related shortcomings on the part of Porac police in relation to the illegal Pogo operation.

Following a similar raid in March, 49 police officers of Bamban, Tarlac, also were relieved on June 4 after the Office of the Ombudsman suspended Mayor Alice Guo for alleged wrongdoing in connection with the operation of a Pogo company that is facing human trafficking charges.

The move was also intended to clear the way for the investigation of any “neglect of duty” by the officers in relation to illegal activities of the Pogo company, according to PNP spokesperson Police Col Jean Fajardo.

Paocc spokesperson Winston Casio said they learned that the Lucky South 99 Pogo company in Porac had been operating at the 5.8-hectare compound within the vast Royal Garden Estate without any valid permit from Pagcor.

Casio told reporters on Wednesday that several Chinese military medals and uniforms were found in several of the 46 buildings in the compound.

Authorities also found several rooms with bloodstains. The rooms were believed to be torture chambers where Pogo workers were beaten up for not complying with management directives and for failing to reach their quotas.

One of the buildings forcibly opened by police officers showed a large KTV bar with VIP rooms and rooms with beds. Authorities believed that the building was used for the sex trafficking of foreign and Filipino women.

A gun and several rounds of live ammunition were also found inside one of the rooms of another building.

Several senators on Thursday urged President Marcos to ban all Pogos for posing a threat to national security and for being the source of crimes such as those cited by Tengco.

Opposition Sen Risa Hontiveros urged the President to heed the pronouncements of Defence Secretary Gilberto Teodoro Jr, who favored a total ban on Pogos on national security grounds.

“Why is it considered a national security concern? It weakens our political, economic, social, and peace and order fabric,” Teodoro told reporters on Wednesday.

Hontiveros earlier said that Pogos were being used as cover for online scamming, sex trafficking, and torture and were being used as a spying network.

She cited the dozens of smartphones found at the Bamban Pogo hub that were suspected of being used for fraudulent transactions and online scamming.

Hontiveros said the Pogo in Bamban was also suspected of conducting surveillance and hacking activities.

“What more proof does (the President) need to consider Pogos a national security threat?” she said. “Let us ban Pogos now, wherever in the country they may be.”

Sen Sherwin Gatchalian said the national security concern expressed by Teodoro reinforced calls for their immediate ban.

“I reiterate our call for the President to listen to the amplified call of many of the Filipino people and the agencies of government to end the presence of Pogo in the country,” he said.

Senate President Francis “Chiz” Escudero urged the Department of National Defense to discuss with Pagcor the concerns they had raised regarding the presence of Pogos near military camps.

Escudero supported calls for the total phaseout of illegal Pogos.

“In fact, all illegal Pogos should be closed, whether they are close to our military bases or not and their perpetrators arrested,” he said.

In 2019, then defence chief Delfin Lorenzana said Pogo hubs, particularly those near military camps, could easily shift their activities to spying.

Lorenzana cited the former Island Cove in Kawit, Cavite, that was converted into a Pogo enclave a few kilometres from a military base at Sangley Point.

Senate President Pro-Tempore Jinggoy Estrada said that aside from the national security concerns, the government should crack down on Pogos, that Pagcor said were operating without licenses.

According to National Security Adviser Eduardo Ano, Pogos are not yet considered a national security threat in the same way that the Abu Sayyaf and the communist insurgents are.

But for now, “it is a national concern that law enforcement and regulatory agencies can address,” Ano said on Thursday.

He urged lawmakers to look into whether the government should allow the continued operations of Pogos in the country.

He assured them that the National Security Council was also making its own assessment of the implications that Pogos had on national security from a “balanced and informed perspective” in close cooperation with other agencies.

On Tuesday, Sen Lito Lapid, who hails from Pampanga and chairs the Senate committee on games and amusement, called on the Senate to inquire into the Pogo hub in Porac.

“It is appropriate to conduct a thorough investigation to find out who are the real owners of the land and buildings used... and the company that operates here so that the whole truth can be known as to who is behind the Pogo,” Lapid said in a statement.

He said the raids on the Pogo hubs in Tarlac and Pampanga did not only uncover sufficient basis for criminal prosecution but also for remedial legislation to “prevent further abuses in our regulatory processes.”

The Pampanga Chamber of Commerce and Industry submitted to the provincial board a position paper strongly urging local executives and national agencies to ban Pogo operations.

“The minimal economic benefits do not justify the extensive social, economic, and reputational damage they cause,” the 30-year-old business group said in a statement. - Philippine Daily Inquirer/ANN

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Philippines , Pogos , illegal , offshore , gambling , crackdown

   

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