May 15, 2023
MANILA – In two separate raids last week, law enforcement agencies led by the Philippine National Police-Anti-Cybercrime Group (ACG), rescued more than a thousand human trafficking victims from two cyber scam hubs in Parañaque City, and at the Clark Freeport Zone in Pampanga.
Twelve “maintainers” of the Clark-based company—seven Chinese nationals, four Indonesians, and a Malaysian—are now facing charges of human trafficking in relation to cybercrime, serious illegal detention and kidnapping, and violation of immigration laws.
The 1,090 rescued victims from Vietnam, China, Indonesia, Nepal, Malaysia, Myanmar, Thailand, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and the Philippines, were recruited online to staff what turned out to be spurious cryptocurrency marketing operations. Promised as much as $2,000 a month, with free plane fare, food, and accommodations, the recruits were made to work up to 18 hours a day in prison-like conditions, and forced to dupe people into investing in cryptocurrency. Another scheme uses dating apps and lures people by feigning romantic relationships.
Not that human trafficking for cyber scam operations is anything new, with scores of Filipino victims rescued from Cambodia and Myanmar late last year following an exposé by Sen. Risa Hontiveros. But what makes the latest trafficking incident particularly alarming is how bold and brazen criminal syndicates behind these have become. From conducting their nefarious activities in remote islands in Myanmar and Cambodia to avoid detection by authorities, they’re now operating inside repurposed city condominiums (as in Parañaque), and in supposedly government-regulated enclaves like the Clark Freeport Zone in Mabalacat City, Pampanga, where the raided Colorful and Leap Group Co. (CLGP) does its business.
Lately as well, the scammers have been using Philippine offshore gaming operators, or Pogos, as legal cover, with government agencies seemingly helpless, or perhaps unwilling, to regulate this controversial industry identified with illegal gambling and a rise in such crimes as tax evasion, kidnapping, prostitution, extortion, and even the occasional murder of “uncooperative” Chinese business associates and expatriate workers.
Sadly, as the Clark raid also shows, the Philippines has become a host for cyber scam hubs, Hontiveros said, noting how other Southeast Asian nationals have been lured into the country with honeyed promises from traffickers.
Despite complicit immigration officers being identified by trafficking victims and subsequently indicted, the problem persists and our borders have remained porous. Even as the Bureau of Immigration justifies its nightmarish procedures for outgoing Filipinos, ostensibly to circumvent trafficking operations, the latest raids on cyber scam hubs only show how unscrupulous syndicates have cunningly used other platforms and gotten away with it, no thanks to the lax enforcement of the government’s oversight functions.
Initial investigation into the Clark operation has so far revealed that CLGP was not a registered business enterprise at the Clark Freeport Zone, and that it was merely subleasing its buildings from the Sun Valley Clark Hub Corp. that, in turn, was only leasing the property from Donggwang Clark Corp. II. But the Clark Development Corp. (CDC), which has insisted that it would not tolerate any illegal activities inside the free port zone, still needs to explain why an unregistered company such as the CLGP had managed to operate illegally and traffic thousands of foreign workers into forced labor inside government-owned premises without its knowledge.
Surely, a more thorough, transparent, and independent investigation of the incident is in order, with the clamor to suspend Pogo operations given serious consideration this time. The justice department’s and the Philippine Amusement and Gaming Corp.’s plan to conduct an inventory of licenses issued to Pogos would be a good start, and should be complemented by regular, ocular inspections of Pogo offices and workers’ quarters to discourage clandestine illegal activities.
Just as awaited is the Senate’s planned inquiry into the goings-on at the Clark Freeport Zone whose operations have managed to stay largely under the radar. Who’s running the CDC, how does it monitor the companies’ compliance to the country’s laws inside this privileged enclave, and how accountable is it for their crimes? As well, the labor department, the PNP-ACG, and the Department of Information and Communications Technology should get together to devise regulatory controls over online recruitment ads to protect would-be recruits from similar scams, and workers from being compelled to do illegal acts.
Needless to say, government agencies at the forefront of Pogo and freeport zone operations must come up with tighter mechanisms to monitor companies employing huge numbers of foreign workers, to make sure that everything is aboveboard. As Hontiveros noted: “We expect all agencies to be at full throttle to end the massive scamming operations that put our Filipinos and fellow Asians in danger.”