By Bernadette D. Nicolas & Butch Fernandez
SEVERAL groups of passenger-couriers bringing in huge foreign currencies into the country have already been identified by the Bureau of Customs (BOC) as the bureau ramps up its efforts on a suspected “money-laundering” scheme.
This, after Sen. Richard Gordon revealed that dozens of Chinese citizens brought more than $160 million in cash into the country from December 2019 to February this year, which the senator described as having the hallmarks of money laundering.
Gordon is expected to include the money-laundering angle on the list of unsavory activities associated with the surge of Chinese workers in the country, mostly for Philippine Offshore Gaming Operators (POGOs).
Gordon, who chairs the Senate Blue Ribbon Committee, suggested that probers look into “how the Executive branch is implementing the law, particularly on the compliance of casinos, Pagcor, banks, among other covered institutions in reporting suspicious transactions.”
He indicated the Blue Ribbon’s focus on the money-laundering angle will expand the ongoing POGO-related inquiry by the Labor committee chaired by Sen. Joel Villanueva, which is looking also at the prostitution and immigration corruption angles expposed by Sen. Risa Hontiveros.
Senate Minority Leader Franklin M. Drilon said at the weekend he backed the looming inquiry to be opened by Gordon on the money laundering.
In a statement on Sunday, BOC said they are already working with the Anti-Money Laundering Council (AMLC), Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas (BSP), and other intelligence and law-enforcement agencies, including Congress, to address the influx of “suspicious large amounts of foreign currency into the country.”
BOC Assistant Commissioner and spokesman Vincent Philip C. Maronilla said in a phone interview that since the third quarter of 2019, they already got the information on the influx of passengers bringing huge amounts of various currencies.
He added that, “ we were looking at it already, that there was an influx of passengers [bringing in] amounts in excess of that which is allowed to be declared,” Maronilla told the BusinessMirror.
“As per our intelligence Group, the figures mentioned by Senator Gordon match the figures we reported to AMLC,” he added.
Under existing laws, amounts of foreign currency exceeding $10,000 in value are allowed to be brought into the country for as long as they are declared.
While he refused to disclose specific details on the nationalities of those they have identified to be declaring huge sums of currencies, he said most of those they have observed to be doing so in the past are mostly Asians.
“Lately, there has been a spike in the number of those bringing in large amounts who claim that they are going to use it as an investment or they are going to invest in a business. The others claim to be tourists who plan to do some shopping,” he said in a mix of English and Filipino.
Reporting to AMLC
Despite the influx, Maronilla said he believes there were no lapses on the part of BOC as they are reporting the currency declarations to the AMLC.
However, he said they will launch a review on the performance of BOC personnel in light of Gordon’s revelation.
“I don’t think we have lapses, because those are not contraband. Our only requirement is to report that,” he said.
For the meantime, Maronilla assured the public that the bureau is working with AMLC, as well as the National Intelligence Coordinating Agency, which intends to propose an interagency task force to address the particular issue.
He also said they also want to coordinate their efforts with Gordon.
As for AMLC, he said the BOC is requesting them to monitor the movements of these currencies.
“Bringing into the country a large amount of currency is not per se illegal and, therefore, would not necessitate [right away] the conclusion that there’s money laundering. There has to be an evaluation on how thse particular currencies are being used which is AMLC’s work,” he said.
Maronilla said it is important for BOC to get to the bottom of this issue since they don’t want the country to be tagged as a money-laundering haven. “That will greatly affect some of our investments, and the way the world perceives us and we don’t want that.”
He also added they are also looking into intelligence reports coming from ACT-CIS Party-list Rep. Eric Yap that the money may be used to fund destablization plot against the government.
Swarm of syndicates
Drilon aired an alarm over the weekend against a swarm of money-laundering syndicates openly operating in the country.
Drilon disclosed Sunday that “huge amounts of money” brought into the country by Chinese nationals are linked to “a money-laundering scheme of organized syndicates.”
Drilon, who steered passage of the 2001 Anti-Money Laundering law (Republic Act 9160) during his term as Senate President, said it was clear that “the country is being used for money laundering.”
He said such blatant criminal activity has “never been seen” before, noting that the illegal operators “seem very confident that they will not be caught.”
He noted that casinos are among the industries that anti-money laundering coalitions worldwide consider to be prone to money-laundering schemes.
In a statement, Drilon echoed suspicion that “millions of dollars brought into the country between December 2019 to February 2020 would be laundered through casinos and POGOs.”
Under the law, any casino transaction of over P5 million should be subject to scrutiny by the AMLC, Drilon said, recalling that Republic Act 10927 puts casinos under the coverage of the Anti-Money Laundering law.