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Syndicates posing as POGOs are national security concerns — Teodoro

Defense Secretary Gilberto Teodoro Jr. on Wednesday said that criminal syndicates posing as Philippine Offshore Gaming Operator (POGO) hubs are national security concerns.

"The concern is that we should stop these syndicated criminal activities operating out of our base, which weaken our financial standing, our country ratings, [and] corrupt our society," Teodoro said in a statement.

The defense chief's statement was issued a day after the Philippine Navy said it was not yet considering POGOs as a threat to national security despite the series of raids in Central Luzon against POGO hubs involved in alleged illegal activities.

Teodoro stressed that he did not identify these raided establishments as POGOs, which he said are traditionally business process outsourcing (BPO) enterprises.

"For example, there are legitimate POGOs where the bets and the payoffs are taken from other countries [such as] horse racing in Europe, [and] sports betting; only the matching of bets and payouts are done here but the bets originate [from] outside [the country]," he said.

"'Yung POGO na alam natin [dito sa Pilipinas] na operated to evade the ban on gambling in China, the bets originate here. So, may diperensya," he added.

(The POGO that we know here in the Philippines operate to evade the gambling ban in China, the bets originate here. So there is a difference.)

The Department of National Defense (DND) said authorities are now analyzing evidence from information gathering on POGO activities, and the raids that were conducted in Tarlac and Pampanga.

In March, authorities rescued more than 800 Filipinos and foreign nationals at a large POGO hub in Bamban, Tarlac after it was raided for alleged illegal activities that include crypto and love scams.

The raid has prompted senators to question suspended Bamban Mayor Alice Guo over her alleged links to the POGO hub, as well as her identity as a Filipino citizen. Guo, for her part, has denied the allegations against her.

Last week, authorities raided another POGO hub in Porac, Pampanga and rescued 158 Chinese, Vietnamese, and Malaysian nationals. Senator Sherwin Gatchalian said the recent raid showed the possible influence of Chinese syndicates in the country’s court systems.

This prompted the Supreme Court to conduct an investigation into the matter.

In the raided POGO hub in Porac, authorities have discovered alleged uniforms of the Chinese military in the premises.

However, the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) on Tuesday said it was possible that the uniforms were only used as props by POGO workers in their illicit online transactions.

Many, many more

The Presidential Anti-Organized Crime Commission (PAOCC) said Wednesday that there were around 300 POGOs illegally operating in the country.

"There are more than 300 illegal POGOs. My reading here is that all of them have their license before, but when they felt that their license won't be renewed anymore due to violations they are committing, they decided not to reapply," said PAOCC Undersecretary Gilbert Cruz at the Kapihan sa Manila Bay forum.

"These entities don’t want to be regulated by Pagcor (Philippine Amusement and Gaming Corporation)," he said.

Cruz, meanwhile, said that it was difficult to believe that local government units would not be able to notice the activities of POGO hubs.

“It is hard to hide a POGO because there will be a lot of red flags, indicators that a certain building is involved in a POGO operation. A POGO building will be well lighted even at night, and foreigners abound the area,” explained Cruz.

Task Force

Meanwhile, the Department of the Interior and Local Government (DILG) is forming a task force to look into the Tarlac raid and determine if a mayor's permit was issued for the POGO hub.

Interior and Local Government Secretary Benhur Abalos Jr. issued the statement Wednesday, while raising questions on how the POGO's activities could last for so long in the area without a permit.

"Well, tinitingnan natin ang buong insidente. Pinagre-report ko 'yung RD (Regional Director) paano nangyari na isang kalaking complex nagkakaroon ng activities na ganito. Actually, lahat ng anggulo tinitignan natin dito," Abalos said.

(Well, we are looking into the whole incident. I am asking for a report on how such a big complex can conduct these kinds of activities. We are looking at all angles.)

Abalos stressed the importance of the country's national security, noting that authorities also discovered evidence of torture from the Porac hub.

Warning to POGO operators

For his part, Speaker Martin Romualdez warned POGO operators to comply with the law or face arrest by law enforcers.

Romualdez issued the warning in an ambush interview after the Independence Day ceremonies at the Barasoain Church in Malolos, Bulacan.

"Basta dapat lahat ng stakeholders d'yan, sumunod sa batas. At sa mga lumalabag sa batas, lagot kayo sa ating mga law enforcers. 'Yung mga bawal ang ginagawa ninyo, talagang huhulihin kayo. Kaya dapat sumunod kayo sa batas para hindi kayo magkaka problema," Romualdez said.

(All POGO stakeholders should follow the law. Violators will be dealt with accordingly by our law enforcers. You will be caught. So comply with the law so you won't have any problems.)

Asked if he supports proposed measures banning POGOs, Romualdez replied, "Dadaan din 'yan sa proseso, sa hearings. Papakinggan natin lahat ng stakeholders kung ano ang posisyon nila rito at doon natin ititimbang kung ano ang dapat natin gawin."

(Those proposals will follow the process and go through hearings. We will listen the positions of all stakeholders. That's when we will assess our next steps.)

The House Committee on Games and Amusement has approved a proposed bill and a resolution banning POGOs. The issue has yet to be discussed in plenary. — with a report from Tina Panganiban-Perez/ VDV, GMA Integrated News