For kids in special education, lockdown learning a must

By Winona Sadia/Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism

Learners with special education needs require face-to-face instruction but are vulnerable to the coronavirus disease. Parents and teachers have no choice but to make distance learning work.

As the clock ticked closer to 10 a.m., Elena Elpedez cleared the dining table to make way for her son’s online class simulation. Ten-year-old Enzo, who has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder or ADHD, has the entire makeshift study area for himself for a good hour. Excited, Enzo set up his Zoom account to meet up with his classmates and teachers, albeit virtually.

Despite the difficulties of distance learning amid the coronavirus pandemic, Elena did not think twice about enrolling her bunso (youngest child) this school year for special education or SPED at Parang Elementary School in Marikina. It was better, she said, than letting months pass without Enzo learning anything.

Elena left her business process outsourcing job in 2015, as soon as she realized the need to supervise Enzo’s schooling and therapy. She then put up a printing business at their house to augment her income. During the lockdown, Elena recycled reviewers and worksheets from customers to refresh Enzo with what he had learned the previous school year.

Elena prints out recycled worksheets to help Enzo continue learning during quarantine. Photograph: Winona Sadia

Para ma-instill sa kaniya na dapat continuous pa rin ang pag-aaral niya. Ayaw ko kasing isipin niyang bakasyon lang siya, baka matagal ko na naman siyang mapapayag mag-school (I wanted to instill in him that learning should be continuous. I don’t want him to think it’s just a long vacation. It might take time to convince him to go back to school),” she said.

The 44-year-old mother of two was worried over their internet connection after the school held simulation classes ahead of the opening on Oct. 5. She’s keeping her fingers crossed that Enzo and his kuya (older brother) Edrei, an 18-year-old Grade 12 student, would have opposite class schedules so they won’t use the internet at the same time.

The problems of SPED parents and teachers go beyond weak internet connections, however. Physical interaction with teachers is a cornerstone of SPED, and experts and stakeholders are still debating whether to push face-to-face classes or settle for distance learning. One thing is sure: parents like Elena will have to pull all stops to make everything work, if they don’t want their kids left behind. (See related story: Will distance learning work? Parents, teachers not so sure)

But Elena is not so confident in becoming Enzo’s teacher.

Titingin ako sa books niya ngayon at ipapabasa sa kanya. Kung ano `yung pagkabasa [at] pagkakaintindi namin, `yun na `yun,” she said. “Hindi katulad ng teacher, may sarili silang style, may mga visual aid pa sila, which is hindi talaga magagawa ng parent (I will look at the books and ask him to read them. How we read and understood them, that’s it. Teachers have their own style, they have their own visual aids, which parents don’t),” she said.

Elena converts their dining table into a makeshift study area for Enzo, who begins schooling at Parang Elementary School on Oct. 5. Photograph: Winona Sadia

Exception for SPED learners?

SPED enrollment has always been low. Genevieve Caballa, executive director of the Alternative Learning Resource School Philippines (ALRES-Phils) – a school offering SPED and therapy programs – said that 97 percent of learners with disabilities were not in school. Enrollment has not improved for more than a decade, she said.

Data from the Department of Education (DepEd) showed that of more than 5 million Filipino children with disabilities nationwide, only 1.4 percent or more than 71,000 non-graded learners were enrolled for the upcoming school year as of September.

Former education secretary Bro. Armin Luistro called for face-to-face classes among learners with special education needs, or LSENs, despite the pandemic.

“SPED should continue and it has to be face-to-face. There are only a few students and they need the equipment and special teachers in the schools. Barangay (village) leaders and DepEd should work together on it,” Luistro told the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism (PCIJ).

Fernan Gana, president of the Quezon City Federation of Parents and Teachers Associations, said this was easier said than done.

Tama ‘yung rekomendasyon [pero] siguro, pag-aralan lang ‘yung protocols [at] kung paanong iiwasang magkahawaan ‘yung mga bata. Alam naman nating mas vulnerable sila, lalo na `yung mga nasa SPED school (The recommendations are correct but the protocols should be studied to prevent kids from infecting one another. Those who are in SPED school are more vulnerable),” he said.

But for Reading Association of the Philippines President Frederick Perez, SPED institutions might have to consider halting classes altogether.

“Sorry to the SPED schools but I don’t believe that special education will be meaningful and fruitful at this time. Maybe next year. They (LSENs) need a lot of physical contact,” he said.

‘Face-to-face learning ideal, but safety first’

Caballa would rather stick to distance learning, cautioning against resuming face-to-face classes for LSENs.

“Many of them are immunocompromised, so they are more at risk than neurotypical children. [We] don’t want to endanger learners. They could get easily infected,” she said.

Caballa argued that halting school altogether for SPED learners would mean depriving them of their right to continuous education.

“Children have a critical window for development and learning opportunities. If you miss that, there’s no turning back,” she said.

The SPED expert also warned against “regression,” which she said was common among learners with disabilities.

Neurotypical learners, or children with no intellectual or developmental disorders, were less likely to regress even with long breaks from studies, as they have other options to continue learning, she said.

“For learners with disabilities, if they don’t study or are not given just a little stimulation, they easily regress academically and behaviorally,” Caballa said. “The intervention we’re looking at is really empowering parents. Parents are the key.”

According to DepEd’s Basic Education Learning Continuity Plan, face-to-face instruction for learners with disabilities would be allowed only in “very low-risk areas” such as geographically isolated, disadvantaged, and conflict-affected areas with no history of Covid-19 infection.

However, teachers and learners should be living in the vicinity of the school. Face-to-face classes for LSENs, DepEd said, must undergo risk assessment and adhere to strict health protocols.

Redefining learning

Caballa said the way to help LSENs cope with the new normal in education was for parents and teachers to “redefine learning.”

When SPED classes opened at her school on July 13, teachers saw the need to engage the household in online and offline learning activities.

“It’s not just paper and pencil. It’s integrated in home routines. In cooking, for example, we incorporated functional math and reading, reading a recipe, measurement, procedure,” Caballa said.

SPED teachers must also make it a point to keep the screen time within the “ideal” one to two hours per session, she said.

Some of Enzo’s artworks are displayed on the walls of their house in Marikina. Photograph: Winona Sadia

The new setup means parents play an even bigger role in their children’s studies, Caballa said.

Kung dati, hinahatid lang nila `yung bata [at] pinapasa na sa teacher, [ngayon] they realized [na] mahirap pala `yung ginagawa ng teachers, but at the same time we’re encouraging the parents [at] nakaalalay kami sa kanila (Before, they just dropped the kids at school. Now they realize that what the teachers are doing is not easy. At the same time, we’re encouraging the parents and we’re helping them.),” she said.

“It becomes less teacher-dependent because the teacher is just a facilitator and the parent is the lead teacher, which is how it should be.”

Caballa said she found comfort in how several learners have responded to the distance learning setup.

“For the majority, we found out that they were more resilient than how we had perceived them to be. We thought they won’t be able to adjust,” she said.

Running a private SPED school where parents shoulder the costs still has a lot of challenges, especially on the part of teachers, Caballa admitted. There are two backup teachers per session in case the internet connection falters.

“It’s difficult, but I guess we’re driven by our passion for what we do. We know that we don’t have a choice. The other choice is just to stop,” Caballa said. –PCIJ, September 2020

Winona Sadia finished AB Journalism at the University of Santo Tomas. She works as a TV news producer. You may reach her on Twitter (@winonymous) or at [email protected] for comments or suggestions.

Will distance learning work? Parents, teachers not so sure

By Winona Sadia/Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism

Lack of gadgets, internet connections and training pose major problems for the Department of Education when school opens on Oct. 5. Is an ‘academic freeze’ warranted?

Residents of Barangay Buso-Buso in Laurel, Batangas have more reason to be wary when school opens. The village was among the hardest hit when Taal Volcano erupted in January, and families were still scraping mud off their homes when the coronavirus pandemic struck. Confronted with two crises, teachers and parents in the barangay are left with no choice but to take their chances on distance learning come Oct. 5.

Teachers in Buso-Buso Elementary School, which expects about 200 enrollees, admitted they had yet to grasp the “new normal” in education, which requires internet access. Glenda Tenorio said some of her fellow teachers resorted to piso wifi stations – coin-operated machines selling metered wireless connections in nearby sari-sari stores – to go online for training and webinars.

Mahirap dito ang signal e, kahit kami nahihirapan. Kailangan din ng load allowance, pang-internet (The signal here is bad and we’re having a hard time. We also need allowances for internet connection),” she said.

Teacher III Glenda Tenorio shares the difficulties faced by Buso-Buso teachers amid the shift to distance learning. Photograph: Winona Sadia

In July, teachers were forced to shell out up to P150 from their own pockets to attend a three-day webinar organized by the regional office of the Department of Education (DepEd). The “chalk allowance” was not enough, Tenorio said.

Students who do not own any gadget will have a more difficult time adjusting to distance learning, Tenorio told the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism (PCIJ).

‘Di naman lahat ng bata ay may gadget na magagamit. Kung meron man, sa ilang magkakapatid, isang cellphone lang. Iilan `yung kanya talaga (Not all kids have gadgets they can use. If there’s one, it’s a mobile phone shared by everyone. Only a few have their own gadgets),” she said.

The parents of Buso-Buso expressed willingness to adapt to the new normal, but were worried over the demands of the  distance learning setup.

Kapag ang bata minsan nasa bahay at gustong maglaro, hindi mo rin siya matutukan. ‘Pag sa school kasi parang takot pa sila sa teacher, parang naoobliga silang gumawa ng kanilang assignment (At home, the kids would rather play and you won’t be able to monitor them all the time. At school, they do what the teachers tell them to, and they are obliged to do their assignments),” said Gina Villalobos, parent of a Grade 2 student. DepEd originally set the school opening on Aug. 24, but worries over the lack of preparation for the distance learning setup forced the government to postpone it to Oct. 5. Despite the six-week leeway, there are still no clear-cut solutions to the problems raised by the parents and teachers of Buso-Buso, which are shared by other parents and teachers across the country.

Parent Gina Villalobos participates in the cleanup drive in Buso-Buso Elementary School. Photograph: Winona Sadia

Lack of gadgets, digital skills

The lack of gadgets is not only felt in remote areas, but also in rich cities like Quezon City, which has 156 public schools.

Fernan Gana, president of the Quezon City Federation of Parents and Teachers Associations (QCFPTA), said the city government had provided 20 laptops for teachers in each school, but these were not enough.

[Iyong] isang school na hawak ko, more than 200 ang teachers. Anong gagawin nila? Ang nakita ko sa DepEd, [lahat] ng problema wala sa kanila, ibinato nila sa LGUs. Kaya ang nakakaawa lang kasi ang mga LGUs (local government units) wala namang kakayahan (In one school under my supervision, there are more than 200 teachers. What are they going to do? What I see with DepEd, they toss the problems to the LGUs, which have no resources),” he said.

A survey conducted by DepEd in June found that tens of thousands of teachers nationwide lacked gadgets and internet connection needed for distance learning.

Out of nearly 700,000 teachers who responded, 87 percent had laptops or computers at home while 13 percent had none. Only 41 percent of those with gadgets had internet connections.

The survey also found that 49 percent had network signals but did not have internet connections in their households, while 10 percent lacked both.

More than the scarcity of gadgets and connectivity, many  teachers did not have the digital skills needed to sustain online learning, Gana said.

“’Yung mga medyo mas matatandang teachers, hindi sila sanay sa paggamit ng internet. At the same time, medyo nahihirapan talaga sila kung paano gagawin ‘yung pagtuturo (The older teachers are not adept at using the internet. At the same time, they are struggling with how to teach online),” he said.

The Alliance of Concerned Teachers (ACT) said its members were not confident of teaching online and feared that a significant portion of their meager salaries would likely end up being spent on prepaid internet load. ACT is calling for a P1,500 monthly load allowance for public school teachers.

Hindi well-equipped ‘yung ating mga kaguruan. Hindi nila nakikita yung sarili nila kung paano nila itatawid `yung trabaho nila. Gusto nilang bumalik sa pagtuturo, gusto nilang gampanan ang kanilang responsibilidad, subalit nasaan ‘yung needed support from the employer (Our teachers are not well-equipped. They can’t see how they will do their jobs effectively. They want to go back to teaching, they want to fulfill their responsibilities, but where’s the support needed from the employer)?” said ACT Secretary General Raymond Basilio.

During a Senate hearing in June, lawmakers grilled the education department for training just 40 percent of the 800,000 public school teachers nationwide. DepEd said it had trained 385,471 teachers on information and communications technology (ICT)-based teaching from April to June.

But Education Undersecretary Diosdado San Antonio said digital literacy among teachers should not be the sole basis of determining the department’s readiness for distance learning, as online classes were not the only means of delivering instruction.

He said not even half of the students enrolled for the upcoming school year will use online as primary learning modality.

[Ang] mga paaralan, division, regional offices, in full swing na ‘yung mga pagsasanay ng teachers (In the schools, the division and regional offices, the training of teachers is in full swing),” San Antonio said.

As of Sept. 28, 93 percent of public schools nationwide have acquired devices such as tablets, laptops, and desktop computers in preparation for online learning, said DepEd ICT Service Director Abram Abanil.

More than a million devices have been distributed to 43,948 public schools all over the country, he said. DepEd plans to deliver 211,344 more devices before the end of December 2020.

Not as effective as face-to-face classes?

Some teachers and parents feared distance learning would not be as effective as face-to-face learning.

In Buso-Buso, parents even appealed for limited face-to-face classes especially for “difficult” subjects, like English and mathematics, that they admitted they won’t be able to teach their kids.

Karamihan sa amin ay hindi nakapag-aral din (Most of us didn’t go to school),” Villalobos said.

Chairs are stacked outside classrooms in GSIS Village Elementary School in Quezon City as workers make use of the prolonged summer vacation to renovate some school facilities. Photograph: Winona Sadia

Gana, a father of four, warned that the country’s standing in reading comprehension could go down further because of students’ prolonged gadget use.

He was referring to the 2018 Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), where the Philippines ranked dead last in reading comprehension among 79 countries and economies. The worldwide study by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development gauged students’ knowledge in reading, mathematics and science.

Kung bata pa lang e sasanayin natin sa paggamit ng gadgets, baka mawala `yung reading comprehension. [Hindi] katulad noon na naghahanap ka pa ng libro [at] binabasa mo, so nae-exercise ang reading comprehension mo [and] at the same time, `yung pagsasalita mo napa-practice (If children get used to gadgets at a very young age, reading comprehension might suffer. It’s unlike before when you had to find a book and read it, and your reading comprehension and communication skills are practiced),” he claimed.

Reading Association of the Philippines (RAP) President Frederick Perez allayed this fear, saying what mattered was the processing of ideas regardless of the learning modality.

“You can read the digitized format, you can read in printed format. [Just] clicking has no relation with [reading] comprehension. What is important is the processing of the text they’re reading,” he said.

“In this pandemic, it’s important that students [are] able to make meaning, and reading in a very technical term of transactional process should make meaning.”

Perez said distance learning would be an opportunity for parents to promote reading at home.

“We have to expose our students to authentic texts aside from the books, the audio books, aside from what is digital. [We] have to make all means to promote reading at home in families. Mahirap `yan gawin (That’s difficult) because the students are not in school,” he said.

Calls for ‘academic freeze’

With potential hiccups in distance learning emerging ahead of  the reopening of schools, several groups said it might be best for the government to declare an “academic freeze.”

Nagsabi na rin naman kami na baka ang panahon na best na magbukas ng klase ay January 2021. It will still be called School Year 2020-2021, wala namang problema doon (We have proposed the opening of classes in January 2021. It will still be called School Year 2020-2021, there’s no problem there),” Teachers Dignity Coalition Chairperson Benjo Basas told PCIJ.

Basas said the extra time should be used to further train teachers and gather resources for distance learning.

But RAP, which is composed of teachers handling reading classes, said an academic freeze might result in a “learning lag,” citing studies that found that some students had struggled to catch up upon returning to school from long breaks.

“For me, learning should continue, whatever modality it is. We just have to be prudent and wise in our choice of modality and it should be applicable to our children in our context in our locality. It’s too much to delay it for a year. For me, four months is enough,” Perez said.

Former education secretary Bro. Armin Luistro said giving distance learning a shot would be better than halting studies altogether.

“I think what is fair is we compare it not with face-to-face or ‘old normal,’ I think we should compare it with [staying at home and doing nothing, no lessons]. Even if they (pupils) learn just half of the competencies, that is already a very important element in ensuring the continuity of learning,” he said.

Alberto Muyot, president of the nonprofit Save the Children, said it would be unfair to deprive students of learning, despite the limitations brought by the health crisis.

Ang bata, lumalaki ‘yan with or without Covid-19. [Ang] matitigil natin, `yung face-to-face classes, pero ‘yung pag-aaral ng bata, patuloy ‘yun. We just have to be patient bilang mga magulang upang maturuan ‘yung mga bata (Kids will grow up with or without the Covid-19 pandemic. We can stop face-to-face classes, but learning must continue. As parents, we just have to be patient in teaching our children),” he said.

To fill the gaps in distance learning, Save the Children launched “Project ARAL” in partnership with DepEd, rolling out educational materials  to be broadcast over TV and radio stations.

President Rodrigo Duterte earlier heeded the recommendation of DepEd to resume face-to-face classes in areas with low Covid-19 transmission starting January 2021.

Groups are now urging government agencies to put in place safety measures for pupils and students.

Tayo naman po ay naniniwala na wala pa ring papalit sa face-to-face learning bilang best modality ng pagtuturo (We still believe that face-to-face learning is irreplaceable as the best modality of teaching),” ACT’s Basilio said.

However, sa panahon ng pandemya, kailangang matiyak ‘yung kaligtasan ng bawat guro [at] mag-aaral. Pinu-push natin na magkaroon ng clinics, sapat na health workers, at sapat na kinakailangan sa eskwelahan para matiyak na ligtas ito (However, in a pandemic, we have to ensure the safety of all teachers and students. We are pushing for clinics, an adequate number of health workers, and other resources needed by schools to make sure they are safe),” he added.

‘Learning must continue’

Perez said it was time to integrate new skills in the curriculum.

A classroom in Buso-Buso Elementary School, left unused since the Taal Volcano eruption in January, has yet to be fixed. Photograph: Winona Sadia

“Teachers and parents should be ready to face the new normal with new modalities in reading, writing, speaking, listening, viewing and presenting. [The] new normal calls for new skills, actually, skills that have not been given importance like listening and speaking and then viewing and presenting,” Perez said.

San Antonio stressed the need for communication between parents and teachers.

“Communication will be a very important aspect of our distance learning delivery modality,” he said.

For his part, DepEd Undersecretary Nepomuceno Malaluan said the pandemic might be an opportunity to elicit greater participation among parents in their children’s learning process.

“For quite some time, [there’s] been a much greater reliance of our households on the schools for the learning process of their children, which is not really the ideal because a lot of learning has to happen at home,” he said.

Villalobos, one of the Buso-Buso parents, admitted that playing a bigger role in her children’s learning process would be difficult.

Kahit anong mangyari, ginagapang namin ‘yung mga bata sa pagpasok. ‘Yan lang naman ang maipamamana namin sa mga bata (We will do whatever it takes to keep our children in school. The only thing we can bequeath them is education).”

As of Sept. 28, DepEd has recorded a total of 24,661,788 enrolees in public and private schools combined for the upcoming school year. Of the total, 22,460,996 were registered in public schools.

The education department logged 27.7 million enrollees last year, 22.5 million of which were in public schools. –PCIJ, September 2020

Winona Sadia finished AB Journalism at the University of Santo Tomas. She works as a TV news producer. You may reach her on Twitter (@winonymous) or at [email protected] for comments or suggestions.

The FinCEN Files: PH money remitters flagged in millions of dollars in ‘suspicious’ transactions

In a collaboration with more than 400 journalists in 88 countries, PCIJ examines the Filipino subjects in the FinCEN Files and why the Philippines continues to attract financial crime.

BY KAROL ILAGAN /Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism

What you need to know about this story:

  • Confidential banking reports expose how questionable transactions happen right under the noses of financial institutions and authorities worldwide.
  • The money remittance firms implicated in the Bangladesh Bank heist had been sending huge amounts of money from unknown customers to unverifiable entities for a few years before the theft. The amounts are too big to be left unnoticed by banks and regulators.
  • Lack of resources, a largely cash-based economy, a thriving casino and gaming industry and a strict bank secrecy law make the Philippines an attractive venue for financial crime.
  • Suspicious transactions related to online sexual exploitation of children and drug trafficking are on the rise during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Filipino remittance firms were investigated in the aftermath of the 2016 cyber-heist that siphoned off $81 million from the central bank of Bangladesh. Documents now show that a few years before the daring theft, these remittance firms had moved millions of U.S. dollars in “suspicious” transactions, raising the question as to why they were not stopped in their tracks much earlier.

A cache of secret bank reports shows that Philrem Service Corp. (Philrem) and Werquick Inc. sent more than $1 billion of what were deemed “suspicious” wires from 2012 to 2016, mostly using their accounts in BDO Unibank Inc. (BDO), Rizal Commercial Banking Corp. (RCBC), and Metropolitan Trust Bank Co. (Metrobank).

These activities were flagged in Suspicious Activity Reports (SARs) submitted by various U.S. banks to the U.S. Treasury Department’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network or FinCEN. Because the U.S. dollar is the world’s currency, sending money from one country to another requires conversion to U.S. dollar.

This means that funds have to pass through a bank operating in the U.S. These U.S. banks must file SARs to FinCEN if it sees suspect activity. FinCEN is the U.S. financial intelligence unit similar to the Anti-Money Laundering Council (AMLC) of the Philippines. (See sidebar: What is a SAR?)

The SARs were shown to PCIJ by BuzzFeed News and the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, which led more than 400 reporters in 88 countries to investigate trillions in banking secrets. Information contained in these reports is not necessarily evidence of wrongdoing or criminality, but they have been closely examined to identify transactions and relationships that inform news stories in the public interest.

The cross-border investigation exposes the secret world of international banking. Journalists across the globe found that the world’s biggest banks fail to stop suspicious activities, allowing anonymous actors go unchecked while millions of dollars in taxpayer’s money get looted. (Explore the FinCEN Files data here.)

Since the FinCEN files cover activities involving Filipino parties mostly from 2012 to early 2016, the reports can be seen as a precursor to the 2016 Bangladesh Bank heist. The SARs indicate how vulnerable the Philippine financial system had been to money laundering as moving funds apparently can be done without naming or verifying the source and beneficiary as well as specifying the purpose of the transfers.

The AMLC could not disclose whether it had investigated the remittance firms prior to the heist, but it maintained that anti-money laundering rules and regulations covering money service businesses (MSBs) such as Philrem and Werquick had been in place since 2011. 

The Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas (BSP), which oversees banks and non-banking financial institutions, issued Circular No. 706 in 2011 to include MSBs as “covered institutions” or “covered persons.” Covered institutions or persons refer to banks, offshore banking units, quasi-banks, trust entities, non-stock savings and loan associations, pawnshops, foreign exchange dealers, money changers, remittance agents, electronic money issuers and other financial institutions that  are subject to BSP supervision and/or regulation.

These covered institutions, AMLC said, “were and are still required to comply with anti-money laundering (AML) and counter-terrorism financing (CTF) obligations,” which includes customer identification, recordkeeping, and reporting of covered and suspicious transactions.

MSBs and banks have always had the primary responsibility of complying with AML and CTF obligations under the law. The firms involved in the heist, AMLC said, “failed to comply with these requirements, such as customer due diligence, recordkeeping, and covered and suspicious transaction reporting and, in turn, were vulnerable to be used as conduits for money laundering and terrorism financing activities.”

Philrem & Werquick

Philrem, the remittance company linked to the $81-million transfer of stolen funds from the Bangladesh central bank, is a big subject in the FinCEN files. It appears in at least six SARs, joining the ranks of Dubai gold trader Kaloti and billionaire Roman Abramovich who are both subjects of multiple reports. 

Werquick, a money service business owned by Philrem’s Salud R. Bautista, is the subject of two SARs.

Philrem executives are embroiled in several cases related to the heist, including those filed by the AMLC, the Bureau of Internal Revenue, and the Bangladesh central bank. The BSP revoked the firms’ registrations in 2016. (See sidebar: What went before: Bangladesh Bank Heist)

From the more than 2,100 SARs included in the FinCEN files, a total of 27 SARs, filed between 2010 and 2016, refer to Filipino individuals and companies as originators and beneficiaries of “suspicious” wires. These PDF reports contain narratives of more than 1,700 transactions worth at least $644 million. All figures used in this story are estimates as they do not include transactions cited in prior SARs. The PCIJ also does not have the spreadsheet attachments on file. The actual amounts could be higher.

Infographic by Alexandra Paredes/PCIJ

Of the total $644 million, 70 percent of the transactions were made by Philrem ($335 million) and Werquick ($124.1 million). The narratives in the SARs point to much larger figures though, with one report citing amounts reaching up to $1.6 billion. The breakdown of this amount is not fully available, however. PCIJ is only able to examine wires with transfer details.

The FinCEN files include five unique SARs pertaining to Philrem alone, one referring to Werquick only, and one dedicated to both Philrem and Werquick. The seven SARs were filed between 2013 and 2016, covering transactions that took place from 2012 to 2016. Majority of the transactions ran in the millions of dollars; the lowest amount was $29,250 while the highest was $94.5 million involving 64 wire transfers.

The SARs were filed by the Bank of New York Mellon (BNYM), one of the oldest and largest banks in the U.S. It maintains correspondent banking relationships with Philippine banks to enable them to transact in U.S. dollars.

The biggest amount was reported in the SAR dated April 12, 2016, where BNYM scanned for wires from November 2012 to March 2016 and found 5,001 “suspicious” transfers worth $1.03 billion involving Philrem and Werquick. The report took note of Philrem’s involvement in the Bangladesh Bank heist that happened two months prior, in February 2016. BNYM included Werquick as it learned from news reports that it is also owned by Salud R. Bautista. 

The seven SARs that flagged Philrem’s and Werquick’s activities cited several reasons:

  • “The true ordering customers are not disclosed in the wire details;”
  • “The source of funds and the purpose of the transaction cannot be ascertained;”
  • “Some of the counterparties appear to be shell-like or unverifiable entities;”
  • “Many of the wires were sent in large, round-dollar (and occasionally repetitive) amounts;”
  • “Many were sent between the same counterparties within a short period of time;” and 
  • “The wires were sent from the Philippines, a high-risk jurisdiction for money laundering and other financial crimes.”

PCIJ sent a request for comment to Philrem owners Salud and Michael Bautista and its compliance officer Anthony A. Pelejo through their lawyers. The parties have not officially responded to PCIJ’s queries, but one of their lawyers indicated that his clients were not inclined to comment considering the ongoing case.

Two key observations emerge consistently across all seven SARs. 

First, Philrem and Werquick as known money remitters were sending wires on behalf of “unknown third parties,” which meant that the “source of funds and the purpose of the transaction cannot be ascertained.”

PCIJ’s analysis of Philrem’s and Werquick’s transactions showed that $235.2 million or more than half of the estimated total $459 million worth of transfers were sent without information on who actually sent the money. The actual senders meanwhile were identified in the wires worth a total of $229.6 million. 

Second, the two companies, according to BNYM, were also sending wires to shell-like companies. Shell entities can be created and used for legitimate purposes, but BNYM itself noted in many of its reports that these types of companies are a concern for money laundering and other financial crimes given that “they are easy to form, inexpensive to operate, and are structured in a manner designed to conceal the transactional details of the entities.”

“The use of shell entities provides an opportunity for foreign or domestic entities to move money by means of wire transfers, whether directly or through a correspondent banking relationship, without the entity owners having to disclose their true identities or the nature or purpose of transactions,” BNYM said.

In the SAR filed on May 8, 2015, for instance, BNYM reported that over 32 percent of the funds sent by Philrem, or approximately $319 million, from Jan. 1, 2013 to March 20, 2015, did not identify a true remitting customer. BNYM also found that nearly 48 percent of the $319 million in funds was credited to numerous shell-like entities that have accounts with three banks in Hong Kong. These shell-like entities were also receiving wires in similar large, round-dollar, and/or repetitive/trending amounts, BNYM noted.

Infographic by Alexandra Paredes/PCIJ

Why report suspicious activities?

Stephen Cutler, director of tech firm Guide Meridian and former legal attaché of the Federal Bureau of Investigation to Manila, said the main reason financial institutions must know money transfer details, such as names and identifiers of senders and receivers, and the reason for the transaction, is to reduce the risks of abuse of the system by criminals or terrorists. 

Even simple questions, with documentation for the answers, he said, would deter criminal activity such as online sexual exploitation of children, drug trafficking, arms trafficking and corruption. Keeping such information, he said, would also provide law enforcement agencies with lead information on people who move money from illegal sources. (See related story: Sextortion: Dirty sources, dirty money)

“This information is critical in order to reduce the risk of criminal exploitation of our financial system,” Cutler said in an email interview.

A United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime report estimated that in 2009, proceeds generated from drug trafficking and organized crimes amounted to 3.6 percent of the global gross domestic product, with 2.7 percent or $1.6 trillion being laundered.

In the Philippines, a 2018 AMLC study that assessed the country’s exposure to external threats based on suspicious transaction reports showed that illicit funds from environmental crimes, illegal trafficking of persons, kidnapping for ransom, and terrorism  have entered the country. Illicit funds from smuggling have also originated from the country, while proceeds from other predicate offenses circulated within the country’s financial system.

AMLC in a July 2020 forum reported a big uptick in suspicious transactions when the Covid-19 pandemic and the ensuing quarantines began. From March 1 to April 24, 2020, the number of suspicious transactions related to violations of the Anti-Child Pornography Act of 2009 ballooned by 11,380 percent from the same period in 2019. The number of suspicious transactions involving drug trafficking and other related offenses also increased – by 189 percent compared to the same period last year.

What the rules say

To prevent their systems from being used  for criminal activity, financial authorities worldwide require banks and money remitters to set up AML and CTF programs. “Know-your-customer” (KYC) policies are included in these programs to allow institutions to identify and verify customer identity and the source of funds. 

The Implementing Rules and Regulations (IRR) of Republic Act No. 9160 or the Anti-Money Laundering Act (AMLA) likewise recognize the risk associated with dealing with wire or fund transfers, where according to the law, a bank may unknowingly transmit proceeds of unlawful activities or funds intended to finance terrorist activities.

Finance professionals interviewed by PCIJ on background said that banking with money service businesses is considered high-risk for money laundering because the “true customers and intentions” can be hidden by using money remitters as a conduit of a predicate crime.

Sought for comment, the AMLC said it was unable to, while the BSP said it was not privy to the SARs submitted to FinCEN.

PCIJ wanted to verify whether money remitters were required to provide the banks with details of its own customer or the actual sender of the money.

When asked about bank requirements for money remitters that transfer money on behalf of their customers during the period covered in the SARs, as well as the current process, AMLC said the requirements on fund or wire transfers have generally been consistent since 2012. 

Under the 2012, 2016, and 2018 IRRs of the AMLA, covered institutions must establish policies and procedures designed to prevent them from being used to transfer proceeds of unlawful activities or funds intended to finance terrorism. They must obtain information such as “name of the originator, name of the beneficiary, and account number of the originator and beneficiary, or in its absence, a unique transaction reference number.”

Moreover, AMLC said that since 2012, the IRRs of the AMLA mandate refusal to accept fund transfer instructions under the certain circumstances, such as:

  • wire/fund transfer from a non-customer originator, unless it has conducted the necessary customer due diligence to establish the true and full identity and existence of said originator, or;
  • transfer to non-customer beneficiary, unless the intermediary bank has conducted customer due diligence to establish the true and full identity and existence of such beneficiary; or
  • for high-risk customers, where additional information cannot be obtained, or any information or document provided is false or falsified, or the result of the validation process is unsatisfactory.

BSP meanwhile cited Circular No. 706 in 2011, which put in place customer identification requirements for compliance by banks and non-bank financial institutions. The same circular sets the following customer identification requirements for fund/wire transfers:

  • the beneficiary institution must conduct customer due diligence to establish the true and full identity and existence of a non-customer beneficiary before accepting instructions to pay out fund transfers to said beneficiary;
  • the originating institution must conduct customer due diligence to establish the true and full identity and existence of a non-customer originator before accepting instructions to fund/wire transfer from him/her;
  • in cross-border transfers, the beneficiary institution must conduct enhanced due diligence on the beneficiary and originator if the latter is a high-risk customer; and
  • cross-border and domestic fund/wire transfers amounting to P50,000.00 or more or its equivalent must include the following originator information through the payment chain: i) name; ii) address or national identity number or date and place of birth; and iii) account number or unique reference number.

Section 923 of the Manual of Regulations for Banks (MORB) also outlines the respective obligations of originating, intermediary and beneficiary financial institutions in the wire/fund transfer chain. The rules emphasize the need for both originating and receiving financial institutions to verify the identity of originators and beneficiaries.

SAR findings

In the SARs, it appears that Philrem and Werquick were able to send multimillion in U.S. dollars without identifying or verifying the source of the funds, the true beneficiary, as well as the purpose of the transactions.

As early as November 2011, in the SAR filed on Dec. 13, 2013, BNYM had directed BDO that any wires sent by order of Philrem must include originating customer information. But the same practice apparently continued for years. In the succeeding SARs filed on June 24, 2014, Sept. 10, 2014, and May 8, 2015, Philrem apparently was allowed to transfer money without information about the actual originators of the money. Data extracted from the SARs showed that at least $82.3 million worth of the wires with no known originator were done by Philrem using its BDO account. Two wires worth $700,000 and $38,223 each meanwhile were transferred by Werquick through BDO, again with no details where the money came from.

Documents showed that RCBC and Metrobank have also facilitated transactions in which the identity of the actual sender was unknown or the funds were transferred to shell-like entities. At least $94.3 million was transferred via RCBC while $25 million passed through Metrobank, according to PCIJ’s data analysis.

In one of the SARs, a company whose identity could not be verified via online research received a total of P206.25 million in four wires from Philrem between February 2014 to March 2016. BDO and Metrobank were used to transfer money to the company’s bank account in Hong Kong.

BNYM flagged the wires because “they were often sent only a few days apart, and all were sent in large, round-dollar amounts, with most in the amount of $1,000,000, $1,500,000, or $2,000,000.” BNYM could not also find information on the company on the LexisNexis research database or any internet research, suggesting it is a shell company. PCIJ’s own search in the company registries of Hong Kong, Singapore and the Philippines did not turn up results as well.

BNYM noted that Philrem primarily banked with BDO, but it also held accounts with Metrobank and United Coconut Planters Banks (UCPB). Werquick meanwhile was recorded to have sent wires through BDO and RCBC. 

One of the SARs mentions UCPB as one of Philrem’s banks, but PCIJ did not find details of transactions made through this bank in narrative reports. The document stated that UCPB as well as BDO had responded to BNYM’s KYC requests on Philrem.

Bank responses

PCIJ sent requests for comment to BDO, RCBC, Metrobank, UCPB, and BNYM to understand the nuance and context of the SAR findings. All five banks were provided with details extracted from the SARs and questions about information included in this report.

BDO said it could not address PCIJ’s questions specific to the transactions because of legal limitations. PCIJ wanted to know why it appeared that some of Philrem’s and Werquick’s transactions were facilitated without identifying the true sender, purpose, as well as verifying the receiver of the wires. 

Federico Tancongco, BDO chief compliance officer, said the  Philippines has one of the most restrictive regimes when it comes to laws on  confidentiality of deposits and assets in the possession of banks, referring to Republic Act No. 1405 on peso-denominated bank deposits (Bank Secrecy Law), Republic Act No. 6426 on foreign currency deposits (Foreign Currency Deposit Act of the Philippines), and Republic Act No.  8791 on clients’ assets (The General Banking Law of 2000). The lawyer also cited restrictions on the disclosure of covered transaction reports and suspicious transaction reports that banks must submit to the AMLC.

Tancongco said BDO observed and implemented protocols prescribed by the BSP in dealing with  MSBs. The banks, he said, routinely investigated transactions that raised suspicion or irregularity. Clients, he added, were required to provide justification  or  explanation for  transactions that were unusual or outside  of  their economic profile or expected activities based on their declared businesses and sources of revenue.

When assessing transactions, Tancongco said BDO was “necessarily limited to documents submitted to the bank.”

On questions pertaining to the bank’s KYC and KYCC (know-your-customer’s-customer) procedures, Tancongco talked about the onboarding process or account opening, wherein the bank requires information to establish the true identity of the client. BDO, he said, also performed due diligence  and validated the information and documents provided by clients. For MSBs in particular, Tancongco said BDO also reviewed and assessed their AML and CTF programs, and checked whether they were licensed and accredited by regulators.

After account opening, BDO also performed “continuing account and transaction  monitoring  to  assess if  the relationship is to be maintained,” Tangcongco said. These protocols include, among others,  periodic review and updating of the  client’s information and expanded transactional due diligence.

Tancongco commented: “While  the regulators and the banks work together and invest in automated systems to adopt a robust framework to detect attempts at money laundering and terrorist financing, the perpetrators are also relentless in evolving their tactics and sophistication. Thus no one can guarantee that all attempts can be detected and stopped in time.”

Thea Daep, RCBC’s external counsel and spokesperson, said the bank was “constrained by existing laws, rules and regulations, to decline” PCIJ’s request for comment The lawyer said cases involving some RCBC officers or employees, both former and current, and/or the bank itself were ongoing, which prevented the bank from making public comments or disclosures. Like Philrem, RCBC is also implicated in the Bangladesh Bank heist.

Estela S. Calderon, head of Metrobank’s Corporate Affairs Division, said the bank was unable to participate in PCIJ’s inquiry.

UCPB has not responded to PCIJ’s letter.

PCIJ also wrote to BNYM to understand why, like Filipino banks, it also facilitated transactions involving the subjects despite multiple SARs and red flags found. BNYM has not responded to PCIJ as of this writing.

PCIJ was unable to ascertain any action that the five banks may have taken related to Philrem’s and Werquick’s activities during the period covered in the SARs, given confidentiality rules.

Actions vs fraud

Apart from the wires with no details about the originating source, BNYM also reported transactions involving fraudulent accounts and actions taken by some of these banks. 

For instance, on May 27, 2014, Philrem sent one wire in the amount of $140,383.43 through BDO for credit to a Dubai-based bank for the ultimate benefit of a company that dealt with marine services.

On May 30, 2014, BDO requested a return of funds, “due to fraudulent account.”

On June 5, 2014, the funds were returned.

In another SAR, which was submitted on March 31, 2014, BNYM reported one suspected fraudulent wire involving Werquick.

BNYM noted that on Feb. 24, 2014, Werquick sent one wire in the amount of $29,250 through RCBC for credit to a China-based bank for the ultimate benefit of an unverifiable party.

On Feb. 25, 2014, the beneficiary bank said it was unable to proceed with the payment due to issues with the wire details concerning the beneficiary. 

On March 3, 2014, RCBC attempted to make a clarification but the payment did not push through. RCBC then cancelled the wire, stating that it was the result of a hacked email. At the time of the report, BNYM said the funds had yet to be returned as the beneficiary refused to refund the transfer.

Because of this incident, BNYM conducted a scan for additional wire activity involving Werquick. The scan found 1,527 wires made between Nov. 28, 2013 and Feb. 28, 2014, totaling $106.4 million. At least nine transactions worth $26.5 million were identified to have been facilitated by RCBC.

As in the prior SARs, BNYM reported that many of the wires appear suspicious for numerous reasons, including: “(1) limited, if any, ordering customer information provided on many of the wire transfers thus masking the true identity of the ordering customer; (2) repetitive, large round-dollar transactions within short period of time for which a legitimate business purpose cannot be established; (3) wires sent by or for the ultimate benefit of shell-like entities; and (4) concerns regarding the source and/or ultimate destination of funds.”

Sending wires

PCIJ spoke with seven banking and finance professionals to understand bank practices. None of the interviewees were employed in any of the banks included in the report.

The banking professionals who spoke to PCIJ on background said it all starts with the opening of an account. Sending wires requires a customer to have an account with the bank, which then subjects the customer to KYC procedures by gathering information to establish the customer’s identity and source of funds.

When sending wires, the premise is that the client, who already holds an account with the bank, has already been subjected to due diligence procedures. The bank will also obtain relevant information such as names of the sender and recipient and country of destination to check for sanctions. The bank screens transactions to vet if the information provided has a hit in any “blacklist.” The level of transaction screening on wires depends on the amount of money being transferred. A bigger amount may require additional probing.

When conducting sanction screening, the bank aims to “scrub” the names of the sender and receiver against a list of sanctioned individuals or entities. This list includes the names of individuals related to any predicate crime (i.e., terrorism, drug trafficking, cartels, etc.) and politically exposed persons (PEPs), countries sanctioned by the U.S., E.U. and other high-risk transactions (i.e., transactions that may be linked to materials used in creating ammunitions or war-related items).

If the information has an “initial hit,” the transaction will be put on hold for further investigation depending on the turnaround time set by the bank’s policies. This may take as long as one week in some banks.

Additionally, customers need to establish the purpose of remittance especially if it involves a huge amount. Documents are needed to support the purpose.

Banking relationship

Sources knowledgeable of banking procedures also explained that dealing with MSBs such as remittance firms was considered high-risk because the “true customers and intentions” could be hidden by using the MSB as a conduit of a predicate crime. This is why banks have to continually assess these MSBs on how they conduct business.

Remittance officers interviewed recently by PCIJ said that identifying originating customers or the ultimate beneficial owners in wire transfers depended on the arrangement between the bank and the money remittance firm. Strict banks would require a list of who the actual remitters were, but the requirement ultimately depended on the relationship of the bank with the remittance firm, which is the bank’s client.

Cutler said it used to be possible to send money without identifying the true sender if it was sent in “batches” or “bundles” labeled as coming from the remitter. 

In practice, banks did not necessarily do the same KYC on the customers of an MSB because there was supposed to be an established relationship between the bank and the MSB. “The expectation is that during the onboarding of the MSB, the bank has done due diligence on the capabilities of the MSB to do KYC,” a bank professional said.

Relationship, ultimately, is key. Banks depend on the established years of relationship with its customers. It is assumed that once the bank has an existing relationship with another bank or a non-bank financial institution, the former relies on the latter’s KYC policy for the latter’s customers. The bank will subject their customer’s customer for name screening only if it has a hit.

If the money remitter has high regard for or good control of AML and CTF risks based on the bank’s assessment, the banks may be less stringent in investigating the credibility of the transactions and customers of the money remitter. If they entertain money remitters with acceptable risks (medium to high), the expectation is the bank has more stringent controls and conducts KYCC. Money remitters with very high AML and CTF risks should not be allowed to do business with the bank.

To assess the AML and CTF risks of a prospective bank customer or reassess the same risks of current customers, banks formulate their own criteria to determine the risks prevalent on the customer and whether they will accept, continue or not continue the relationship.

Due diligence

BSP explained that banks are required to apply customer due diligence for MSB-clients, based on their assessment of the risk profile of the MSB. This is referred to as risk-based customer due diligence, which means that a high-risk customer will warrant enhanced due diligence, while those posing normal or low risk will only require average and simplified or reduced due diligence, respectively.

Owing to the nature of the activities of an MSB, banks are required to have a risk management framework for dealing with their MSB-clients, such as analyzing their business models, reviewing their AML and CTF program and controls and monitoring of their transactions, among others.

BSP clarified that AML and CTF regulations are principles-based and requirements are applied on a risk-based approach. Each institution is given discretion to adopt their AML and CTF policies, procedures and controls based on its own risk and context.

“These were not crafted to provide one-size-fits-all set of rules because the ML/TF (money laundering and terrorist financing) risks that each bank, NBFI (non-bank financial institution) and MSB faces differ based on various factors, which may include asset size, business model, products and services offered, customer profile, delivery channels, and geographic location, among others,” the central bank said.

BSP also clarified that risk-based customer due diligence procedures are not equivalent to KYCC or conducting KYC on the customers of their customers. It is not a requirement for banks, the BSP said. Citing a Financial Action Task Force (FATF) 2015 statement, BSP said that the FATF standards did not require a KYCC approach to conducting customer due diligence. 

Regulations governing due diligence on MSBs are also provided in Section 923 of the MORB wherein covered persons, like banks, need to require MSBs to submit proof of registration with the BSP. MSB customers are also required to use company accounts for their remitting, foreign exchange dealing and money changing business.

More common before

Graham Barrow, a UK money laundering expert, said sending wires with no details about the source used to be a problem. The sheer number of banks fined for putting “stripped” wire payments (sender’s details removed) through the U.S. system to avoid the Office of Foreign Assets Control filters showed how it was once commonplace.

But the advent of very large fines and more intrusive regulation has meant that, over the past few years, banks have become more careful. Still, there could be a large number of transactions with missing vital information or suspicious characteristics, which have, up to now, gone unnoticed.

Barrow has worked for a number of global and local banks, including HSBC and Deutsche Bank, to uncover gaps in compliance with anti-money laundering regulations.

What Barrow found concerning was the number of SARs filed by BNYM over a number of years as it was indicative of a system that tended to find problems after the fact.

“Because of confidentiality rules, the public will not hear about corrective actions,” he said.


The Anti-Money Laundering Act, as amended, requires covered institutions to report covered transaction reports (CTR) for transactions going beyond P500,000. Suspicious transaction reports or STRs, the counterpart of SARs in the U.S., must also be filed if the transaction has no justified purpose; the client is not properly identified; the amount involved is not commensurate with the capacity of the client; or the transaction is in any way related to an unlawful activity or any money laundering activity or offense, among others.

Philrem’s owners, the spouses Salud and Michael Bautista, as well as its compliance officer Anthony A. Pelejo are facing money laundering charges for failing to report a CTR and a substantial STR in connection with the 2016 Bangladesh Bank heist.

PCIJ asked whether BSP and AMLC have investigated or looked into Philrem and Werquick prior to the Bangladesh Bank heist as the FinCEN files suggested that the two firms were among the entities with multiple SARs.

The AMLC said it “may not disclose such information due to its confidentiality.”

The BSP meanwhile said it had no access to SARs or any information that foreign financial intelligence units might provide to the AMLC.

While the U.S. and the Philippines may have different thresholds pertaining to the reporting of suspicious activities, the amounts flagged by BNYM were too large to be left unnoticed by the banks and the AMLC.

For example, in 2014 alone, BNYM flagged $143.68 million worth of transactions for Philrem. AMLC’s annual report put the value of STRs recorded by AMLC in 2014 from all covered institutions at $29.16 million, or P1.3 billion using the conversion $1.00=P44.70.

The CTRs and STRs that need to be filed with the AMLC are confidential. PCIJ asked AMLC to give an indication if the BDO, RCBC and Metrobank have filed the same reports with Philrem and Werquick, or Philrem and Werquick for their clients.

The AMLC again said that it could not disclose such information due to its confidentiality.

PCIJ also asked BSP if it had encountered cases wherein the banks mentioned in the FinCEN reports did not verify the sender and receiver of wire transfers.

The BSP did not provide details, but it clarified that banks are given discretion to adopt their AML and CTF policies, procedures and controls based on their own risk assessments and business context. In determining the risk profile of originators and beneficiaries, banks may adopt measures prescribed in the MORB or add their own to satisfy their risk appetite in dealing with clients.

Post-heist measures

The Bangladesh Bank heist triggered the issuance of new financial regulations.

Casinos became covered persons under the ambit of the AMLC. Before the heist, casinos were not required to conduct KYC of their customers or report suspicious and covered transactions to the AMLC. 

AMLC likewise reorganized and created a compliance and supervision group, which is in charge of enforcing AML rules and regulations. The Financial Intelligence Analysis Group, which handles STRs and CTRs, now has 30 to 40 staff compared with just nine back in 2017. 

AMLC also adopted an “inverted triangle” approach to supervision. At the top, the AMLC is in one corner and the supervising authorities, such as the BSP, are in the other. The AMLC supposedly ensures that supervising authorities comply with their duties over covered persons on AML and CTF matters. At the bottom of the “inverted triangle” are the covered institutions, who are primarily responsible for AML and CTF compliance.

Independent of AMLC, BSP conducts risk-based supervisory activities, which comprise both offsite supervision and onsite examinations on both banks and MSBs, among other BSP-supervised financial institutions. 

In 2017, the BSP issued Circular No. 942, an updated framework aimed at enhancing the central bank’s oversight over the operations of MSBs. BSP implements the “network approach” in MSB supervision, wherein an entity that operates an MSB, especially a remittance business, shall be held responsible for monitoring the operations of its remittance network in terms of their compliance with relevant rules. 

Westpac, Wirecard, what’s next?

The Philippines continues to attract financial crime with its involvement in scandals like the Westpac money-laundering and child exploitation breaches in 2019, the Wirecard fraud in June 2020, and more recently, the cybertheft of P167 million from state-owned UCPB.

Barrow, the U.K. money laundering expert, explained that one of the major differences between the bank heist and most money-laundering schemes was that the former was the result of a hack, so it was a type of activity not seen before. This made it difficult for the banks to do pre-emptive action. The heist prompted all major banks to look again at their systems and controls. 

“It is a sad fact (but true) that it often takes a large and newsworthy event like this for banks to understand the potential loopholes in their systems and how they can be exploited,” Barrow said. “The criminals, on the other hand, spend all of their time looking for them and often corrupt or bribe bank employees to help.”

Barrow said the Philippines would likely continue to attract financial crime for a number of reasons. It has a well-developed regional financial services sector, but the local regulator may not be seen to be very assertive or punitive in dealing with transgressions. Put alongside a still largely cash-based economy and a thriving casino and gaming industry, the Philippines is an attractive venue for criminals to use as a throughput destination, meaning the money will be washed here but will flow elsewhere.

For Cutler, Philippine laws and regulations were adequate. Fraud and money laundering still happen even in countries with robust laws like Germany in the case of Wirecard and Australia in the case of Westpac.

Following the discovery of the 2016 heist, banks seemed to be relieved that only one bank was caught up. Banks, he noted, tended to blame “rogue” mid-level people for massive fraud, and not senior management. 

“The financial institutions themselves need to take a stronger role in ‘compliance beyond the checkmark’ on an audit sheet,” Cutler said. “There appears to be a culture of ‘apparent compliance’ rather than true compliance.”

Cutler said good oversight should include strong financial Augmented Intelligence (AI) with strong “machine learning” that evolves as the criminal behaviors evolve.

“A single bank is important to watch over its own system, and ensure it is effective. But a single bank won’t see what’s going on in other banks. BSP and AMLC must do that for systemic protection. It requires AI to help,” he said.

Barrow said having a more assertive regulator that ensures local financial institutions don’t just have good written policies and procedures but actively put them into practice, remove suspicious customers, file SARS and have agile and responsive monitoring systems would be a big step in the right direction. 

Good examples could be found in countries like the Netherlands and Denmark, which had fined large banks and where the government, regulators and the banks work together against financial crime, he said.

Former internal revenue commissioner Kim Jacinto-Henares said the Philippines would continue to attract financial crime primarily because of the bank secrecy rules. 

Enacted in 1955, Republic Act No. 1405 or the Bank Secrecy Law was passed to encourage individuals to deposit their money in banks instead of privately hoarding them. The policy of the government at the time was to have money “properly utilized by banks in authorized loans to assist in the economic development of the country.”

But the law, Henares said, made it hard to investigate financial criminal activity.

The one-page law states that all deposits are confidential in nature and may not be examined or inquired into by anyone, even government offices, except with a written permission of the depositor, or if it is a subject of a case or litigation. 

Measures that seek to ease bank secrecy restrictions have been filed in the House of Representatives and the Senate. But Henares said lifting the bank secrecy law did not seem “realistic” as it would mean forcing public officials to disclose their bank deposits.


The Anti-Money Laundering Council can examine bank accounts pursuant to a court order or if there is probable cause that the deposits are related to certain crimes. But the capacity of the AMLC has long been in question.

Cutler said the BSP and AMLC have “decent policies and goals.” However, inadequate technology and staffing levels of both the BSP and AMLC prevent them from conducting proper oversight and monitoring of the banking and financial system of the Philippines in a globally active context. 

Cutler noted that AMLC is both a regulator and a financial intelligence unit. Unlike financial watchdogs in other jurisdictions, AMLC is a hybrid financial intelligence unit that is able to investigate and prosecute complaints for money laundering.

It has a lot of power, Cutler said, but lack of resources hindered its work.

“AMLC has a massive amount of data flooding into it daily. But how to take this data and make sense of it?” Cutler asked. 

The volume of STRs has also increased. Between 2012 and 2018, for instance, the number of STRs jumped to 491,717 from 17,711.

Despite the significant increase in workload, the number of AMLC staff has not substantially increased (although new people were hired in recent years). This leaves an agency that employs just 146 workers, including 30 to 40 staff in the financial intelligence analysis group, grappling with more than 9,000 reports of suspicious financial activity every week. The council’s total manpower plantilla is 254.

Infographic by Alexandra Paredes/PCIJ

A study that reviewed the quality of STRs submitted to AMLC showed that almost half of the 132,306 reports submitted in 2016 did not have sufficient information that would warrant further analysis and investigation. AMLC recommended reinforcing its Registration and Reporting Guidelines, specifically on how to properly narrate details of circumstances of suspicious transactions.

Asked about how AMLC staff are able to read and act on all STRs received, the council said that not all STRs are processed. Due to the high volume of reports received, the council employs a risk-based prioritization system, which involves generating STR-based alerts, acting as triggers for the AMLC to conduct financial intelligence analysis. STR-triggered analyses are then disseminated as intelligence briefs or information transmittal sheets to law enforcement agencies, foreign financial intelligence units, and other units to support and assist investigations.

Intelligence briefs and information transmittal sheets are among the council’s proactive intelligence reports shared to authorized end-users. It does not wait for any request for information from any government office or law enforcement agency, the AMLC said.

In its latest annual report covering the years 2017 to 2018, the AMLC disclosed that it had filed only 10 money-laundering complaints with the Department of Justice and the Office of the Ombudsman and two cases with the regional trial courts. –With research and reporting by Angelica Carballo Pago, Stanley Buenafe Gajete, Robert JA Basilio Jr., Rex David Morales and Pia Tuan, PCIJ, September 2020

The Old and New Bilibid Prisons in the Time of Pandemics

More than a century ago, Philippine prisons reeled from a flu pandemic. History might be repeated without adequate healthcare for prisoners and drastic interventions to stem the Covid-19 outbreak.

By Aie Balagtas See/Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism

Will the Philippines repeat the deadly record of the 1918 influenza pandemic in its jails and prisons?

On May 21, Henry Fabro, chief physician of the Bureau of Corrections, said fatalities in New Bilibid Prison (NBP) reached an “alarming” level: five inmates died in just one day.

At least 80 prisoners died from May 1 to May 19. The figure surpassed the prison camp’s average mortality rate of 50 to 60 deaths per month. Most deaths came from the Medium Security Compound, where inmates were cramped after returning to prison amid the Good Conduct Time Allowance (GCTA) fiasco.

“The numbers are alarming, that’s why I immediately hired two additional doctors and several nurses,” Fabro told the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism in an interview.

“We wanted to contain it. So far, we were able to pull the death rate back to two per day,” he added.

In May, 40 out of an estimated 28,000 NBP inmates tested positive for Covid-19. One death was attributed to the highly contagious disease.

The death toll due to Covid-19 rose to 15 in June: 12 from NBP in Muntinlupa and three from the Correctional Institution for Women (CIW) in Mandaluyong, according to the Bureau of Corrections.

Fabro believes half of NBP inmates are infected with the virus. However, gauging the true extent of the contagion – with scant testing that yields “snail-paced” and “unreliable” results – is impossible, he said.

Case in point: two inmates were discharged from the NBP isolation area because the Department of Health said they tested negative for the virus, Fabro said. Days later, the health department said it made a mistake.

“We had to repeat the test and expand it to those they (inmates) interacted with,” Fabro said.

Reliable testing, he said, is important to slow infections in penitentiaries and determine which prisoner should be isolated.

This was not the first time a global pandemic tore through Philippine prisons. In 1918, more than 300 inmates throughout the country died. There were nearly 200 deaths at Old Bilibid alone. Back then, the national prison was right inside the capital Manila, on Oroquieta Street in Sta. Cruz district.

A 2009 study titled “The Philippines in the World of Influenza Pandemic 1918-1919” by historian Francis Gealogo said “almost all of the [Bilibid] inmates became sick of the disease during the height of the epidemic in October and November 1918.”

“Among the 2,674 cases of this disease treated during the year, 71 cases of lobar pneumonia complications occurred with 31 deaths. Almost all of the inmates had influenza, and of those who contracted complications in their respiratory organs nearly half died,” he said.

Gealogo said hospitals were so overcrowded during the flu outbreak that 1,897 Bilibid patients who could not be admitted were treated in their own brigades. “Due to influenza and pulmonary tuberculosis, the death rate for the year 1918 was higher than that of 1917,” he added.

The Annual Report of the Secretary of War published in January 1919 said a total of 378 inmates from four prison facilities died during the pandemic.

Old Bilibid had the most deaths with 193. It was nearly double the number of the previous year, which recorded 107 deaths.

Outstations were not spared. The report said Ihawig Penal Colony in Palawan had 72 deaths, San Ramon Penal Farm in Zamboanga City had 45 and Corregidor Island, 68. In 1917, Iwahig recorded 23 deaths, while San Ramon and Corregidor had four and 39 deaths, respectively.

The Old Bilibid Prison, built during the Spanish colonial regime in 1866, is now Manila City Jail.

A century ago, pulmonary tuberculosis was the chief cause of morbidity and mortality among prisoners.

Today, deaths in prisons are a result of multiple problems, such as poor healthcare services, lack of facilities and lack of government manpower and resources. The NBP hospital inside the maximum security compound, for instance, cannot adequately serve the overpopulated prison, and renovations were put on hold because of the lockdown, Fabro said.

The prisoners’ fear of isolation and hospitalization are another factor, Fabro added.

Inmates are also refused admission in hospitals, even in those run by the government, the official said. A nongovernment organization (NGO) working with prisons made the same observation, explaining that inmates are often turned away because they do not have money and relatives to accompany them. Prison guards are not allowed to accompany inmates in hospitals.

The coronavirus outbreak has made the problem worse.

Fabro said hospitals often rejected inmates by claiming they were operating at full capacity. “Recently, a dialysis patient was refused because the hospital learned that NBP has Covid-19,” he said.

The Department of Health did not respond to queries on hospital policies on the admission of sick prison inmates.

Fabro said emergency cases from NBP and the CIW were not spared of the apparent discrimination.

“Our Alpha Patient [of Covid-19] in CIW was refused by different hospitals in Mandaluyong. After hospital shopping, her relatives found a hospital that accommodated her,” Fabro said.

The Alpha Patient, or the first Covid-19 case in CIW, died on April 27. #

= = = = = = = = =

Aie Balagtas See is a freelance journalist working on human rights issues. Follow her on Twitter (@AieBalagtasSee) or email her at [email protected] for comments.

Hidden Victims of the Pandemic: The Old Man, the Jail Aide, and the Convict

Three persons deprived of liberty describe how inhuman conditions in the country’s jails and prisons are placing them at greater risk amid the Covid-19 pandemic.

Here are their accounts as told to Aie Balagtas See. The images, drawn by Alexandra Paredes, are artistic renderings inspired by PCIJ file photos of prisoners from various jails.

By Aie Balagtas See/Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism

“All prison detention cells are Covid-free. That is the safest place right now,” Interior Secretary Eduardo Año said in late March, projecting an air of certainty even as the coronavirus pandemic raged. More than a month later, Año’s statement has become demonstrably false.

As of this writing, 716 inmates in city jails throughout the country have tested positive for the virus. In New Bilibid Prison (NBP), the national penitentiary in Muntinlupa, 140 inmates have been infected with the disease, and 12 deaths have so far been attributed to Covid-19. The Correctional Institution for Women in Mandaluyong has recorded 82 positive cases, with three deaths.

The lack of mass tests, the highly infectious nature of the virus, the lack of protective equipment and proper healthcare, and the inhuman overcrowding at Philippine jails and prisons are a potentially deadly combination.

On condition of anonymity, three “persons deprived of liberty” talked to the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism (PCIJ) in May, speaking out against the impossibility of physical distancing and the shortage of resources in prison and jail cells. The “minimum health standards” imposed outside are nonexistent. Worse, there seems to be a lack of empathy from the people who are supposed to take care of them.

Because they are locked away from the rest of society, inmates and detainees in prison and jail cells are the hidden victims of the Covid-19 pandemic. Here are their stories.

We’re dead,” the old man thought when he first learned of Covid-19 infections. Illustration by Alexandra Paredes

A. The Old Man (Quezon City Jail)

The inmates were getting ready for jail breaks. Our situation in Quezon City Jail has been tense since the coronavirus breached our walls in the last week of March.

We held a noise barrage that month. It used to be calmer here. No one complained even though it was unusual that many of us suffered from high fever in February and early March. One day, we found out that an empleyada tested positive for coronavirus.

That’s when paranoia kicked in.

Empleyada or empleyado, that’s how we call the jail guards. We only learned about her case through media reports. We were kept in the dark about our real situation here.

No one bothered to explain her condition to us. The jail guards left us guessing about our safety. We were left guessing about our lives. Days after the news broke, a fellow inmate died.

Nine more inmates who came in close contact with him later tested positive for the virus.

We were angry. We eventually found out that the empleyada works in the paralegal office where e-Dalaw or the inmates’ Skype sessions with their families were held.

That tells you that she came in close contact with a lot of inmates. I wouldn’t be surprised if all of us got infected. The only way to find out is through massive testing.

‘We’re dead’

An inmate who came in close contact with the empleyada was isolated as jail administrators waited for her results to come out. On the eighth day of his quarantine period, the inmate was sent back to our dorm. We don’t know why he didn’t complete 14 days in isolation. He ate with us, slept beside us. He did practically everything with us. Then the empleyada’s results came. Positive, it said. The jail guards went to our dorm and picked him up for another round of quarantine.

Most of us were in disbelief. As the inmate walked out of our dorm, it got us thinking: Are they really killing us here? Or are they just incompetent?

When I first learned of the Covid-19 infections, one thing crossed my mind: We’re dead.

We’re dead because social distancing is a UFO (unidentified flying object) here. Experts say maintaining physical distance is the best weapon against this virus. For a jail facility that’s nearly 500 percent congested, no matter how you look at it, social distancing is alien.

Let me tell you why I don’t trust their system here.

One of the quarantine facilities was on the floor reserved for tuberculosis (TB) patients. Can you imagine that? You’re breathing TB from that entire floor. If you have ordinary colds and cough, you might get tuberculosis instead of getting cured.

Now, no one wants to admit they are sick over fears that jail guards will send them to the TB floor.

How do they check us for symptoms? They ask: “Do you have cough, cold, fever or flu?” They want to know if we have diarrhea. If we answer “no” to all their questions, that’s it.

Every move, a peso sign

Usually, a plastic screen separates the jail nurse from us.

The empleyados have personal protective equipment. Not an inch of their skin is exposed while the detainees assisting them, called the orderlies, wear only face masks. The orderlies are the real first line of defense. They attend to inmates before jail nurses do.

Earlier this year, my daughter bought me two blister packs of flu medicines. They ran out before I could even take one. I had to give them to my sick dormmates because they couldn’t ask from the clinic.

Most of my dormmates had flu symptoms at that time, but I heard the clinic ran out of supplies. Sometimes, it’s hard to ask medicines from the empleyado. If you know someone from the clinic, your connection might save your life.

Otherwise, you have to buy. Every move you make requires a peso sign. You’re dead if you don’t have money, especially if you’re facing grave charges.

Receiving government provisions is like an awarding ceremony. They need photographs for the tiniest thing they give you. They give you a blister pack of vitamins, they take pictures. They give you a bar of soap, they take pictures.

They always need to take pictures as if these were trophies they would mount on walls.

But everything is a lie. They don’t take good care of us. They don’t even come near those in quarantine areas. They stay outside the bars that separate them from the inmates.

In response to that, I would reach out to grab them whenever they asked me how I felt. It always made them flinch and step backwards. It’s so funny! I do that just to see how they’d react.

I don’t feel we are being treated as humans here.

Hopeless, helpless

Inside jails, you are tormented by the thought that you can’t do anything. People want to complain but can’t. They don’t know how, and they are afraid.

Inside jails, you feel hopeless and helpless.

Hopeless because you are under their rule. It’s like a military camp. What the empleyado wants, the empleyado gets.

Helpless because there are no real safety measures. There are no standard procedures for quarantine.

This is why I decided to speak up. I want things to change – from quarantine and precautionary measures to the attitude of the empleyado nurse.

Once, a medical aide said a sick detainee needed attention. The empleyado answered back: “Bahala silang mamatay pabayaan mo lang sila (let them die).”

With that attitude from a government nurse, how will you feel?

Why are we put in such conditions?

We’re presumed innocent until proven guilty. We should not be placed in these life-threatening conditions. We still have the right to life.


Tension between jail guards and inmates subsided when the government started releasing detainees in April. Some days they released 20 inmates, some days they released five, 10 or 38.

It’s a slow process but at least they’re doing something to address the problem.

On April 19, the jail started segregating the elderly from the general population.

Old men, like me, were taken to administrative offices previously occupied by jail personnel. One of the offices was the paralegal office! It was the office where the empleyada who tested positive for Covid-19 was assigned.

In one of the facilities, 11 people shared two gurneys and a stretcher. Sick inmates who recently died used to occupy those makeshift hospital beds. I don’t know if they have been disinfected.

After all the deaths and infections here, information remains scarce. They’re not telling us anything. Don’t we deserve to know the truth so we can also protect ourselves?

Like me, I’m already 60 years old. My immune system is weak.

For now, I take things one step at a time. I have this mindset that I will never wait for my release anymore. It will torment you if you wait for it. But at night, I sleep wishing that I can get out.

I wish I could benefit from the Supreme Court petition that was filed on behalf of detainees. When the courts sent me here earlier this year, I didn’t have colds and cough. Now I have it. I’m afraid that if they don’t do anything, I will die here in a few days.

“I think I’m Covid-19 positive as I have all the symptoms, but until now, I have never been swabbed for a test,” the jail aide said. Illustration by Alexandra Paredes

B. The Jail Aide (Quezon City Jail)

We badly need mass testing. I am one of the orderlies in Quezon City Jail. The old man and I are concerned that many of us are infected with Covid-19 already.

We don’t have sufficient information about what’s happening. They’re not telling us anything. I don’t know why. Maybe, they don’t want us to panic?

In March or February, we ran out of paracetamol after detainees with fever inundated the clinic.

Our Covid-19 prevention measures are also terrible! I’m one of those who assist jail doctors and nurses in the clinic. Those I work with are protected with proper medical equipment. Me? I attend to patients wearing only a glove and a face mask to protect myself.

In April, they relieved me of my duties when I went down with high fever. I really thought I would die. I had convulsions. I’ve been in quarantine ever since.

I think I’m Covid-19 positive as I have all the symptoms, but until now, I have never been swabbed for a test.

No physical distance

They placed me in isolation together with other sick inmates, which meant that if I had the virus, other inmates would catch it too.

Because it’s impossible to maintain physical distance, our line of defense against coronavirus is our immune system.

Even that is far-fetched.

Why? Because our food is terrible. Sometimes, we have longganisa (native sausage) for lunch for five straight days. For dinner, they always serve soup with vegetable. Sometimes our rice supply is half-cooked. Sometimes it’s burnt.

With lack of proper food and exercise, boosting our immune system is next to impossible.

“The truth is, many of us are sick,” the convict said. Illustration by Alexandra Paredes

C. The Convict (New Bilibid Prison)

More people are dying in New Bilibid Prison every day. It is as if there’s a typhoon of dead bodies raining all over us.

This May, more than 100 inmates died. That number is unprecedented. It’s the first time I have seen something like that since I arrived here 20 years ago.

Many of them died of pneumonia and other respiratory problems. However, there were no tests that would confirm them as Covid-19 patients.

We are scared of many things. We are scared of contracting the virus, but we are also scared of getting thrown inside isolation wards.

Prison doctors will isolate you if they think you have symptoms. We don’t want to be in further isolation. This fear prompts inmates to lie about their real health condition. The truth is, many of us are sick.

The NBP has three camps: the maximum, medium, and minimum security compounds. The isolation areas are located inside these facilities. They are different from the newly built “Site Harry” where Covid-19-positive patients from the Bureau of Corrections were put in quarantine or treated. Site Harry is located beside the medium security camp.

We are scared but we can’t do anything. Gang bosses might wring our necks if we complain. Speak up and face the risk of being locked up in a bartolina (isolation cell).

We have to wear masks wherever we go. Prison guards and gang leaders are strictly implementing this policy outside our dorms.

Ironically, we can remove our masks inside our dorms during bedtime. Covid-19 must be having a grand time inside our walls!

‘Their lives matter’

There’s no way to gauge what’s plaguing us, for sure. There’s no massive testing among inmates for the virus that has already killed one of us.

I can only assume.

Uncertainty is our enemy. Only one thing is clear to me: NBP is not Covid-19-free and we may contract the virus anytime. Dying of Covid-19 seems only a matter of time.

We are scared for the prison guards, too. They also need attention. They need to be tested, and tested rigorously.

Should guards die, they would be called heroes. The government would hail them as frontliners who risked their lives for public safety. Their lives matter.

But when we, the inmates, die, we will be reduced to nothing but ashes that our families can retrieve from crematoriums for a hefty price of P30,000.

We know that the virus is a problem everywhere. All we’re asking for is a health care system that caters to everyone, including us.

We’re humans too. #



A spokesman for the Bureau of Jail Management and Penology (BJMP) confirmed to the PCIJ that the female staff of Quezon City Jail who tested positive for Covid-19 was part of the “e-Dalaw operation,” but said her participation was limited to planning the inmates’ schedules. Detainees held a noise barrage after finding out that the empleyada had caught the disease, but the “commotion” was pacified and jail staff and inmates have since maintained open communication with each other, the spokesman claimed.

The BJMP did not respond to queries on whether suspected Covid-19 cases were isolated on the same floor as tuberculosis patients. –PCIJ, June 2020

Aie Balagtas See is a freelance journalist working on human rights issues. Follow her on Twitter (@AieBalagtasSee) or email her at [email protected] for comments.

Alexandra Paredes is a graphic designer and artist. Her design practice spans social impact, corporate collaterals, teaching, writing, and commissioned art. Find her online at

Paredes’s illustrations are fictional representations of the old man, the jail aide, and the convict. These are artistic renderings inspired by PCIJ file photos of prisoners.

Quarantine Curbs Access to Information

By Karol Ilagan/Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism

IS FREEDOM of information one of the casualties of Covid-19?

Since April, the staff of the Digital News Exchange (DNX), a community-based news site in Bacolod City, has had zero success in getting a response to its requests for information on Covid-19-related procurement and cash aid.

They’re not the only ones. Journalists around the country say both national and local government agencies have either delayed or denied their information requests. Officials, they said, were particularly reluctant to release information that would hold them accountable for their spending.

So far, only one in 10 of the Covid-19 requests filed in the government’s eFOI portal between March 13 and May 27, 2020 has been granted. Most of these requests were for information on Covid-19 spending and financial assistance, according to data from the Presidential Communications Operations Office (PCOO), the manager of the eFOI platform where information requests from national government agencies in the executive branch are filed. 

The PCOO has so far received 1,332 requests from journalists and the public for Covid-19-related information. More than half of those requests are still being processed while about a third have been denied supposedly because they were lodged in the wrong agency, the requester did not provide his/her complete details, or the information is already available online. (See Charts 1 and 2.)

Most of the denials were requests for Covid-19 spending or Social Amelioration Program (SAP) data from the Departments of Social Welfare and Development, Labor and Employment, Interior and Local Government, and Budget and Management. The PCOO refused to entertain these requests; instead it advised requestors to ask their local government unit or call a DSWD hotline number. (See Table 1 below.)

Like many journalists around the country, DNX was particularly interested in how funds allocated for Covid-19 relief have been spent. It is working on a project called Money Watch to monitor how money from Bacolod City’s P100-million calamity fund was allocated. 

It’s been eight weeks since the DNX staff sent the city government and its Department of Social Services and Development a request for data on pandemic-related spending. But up to now, they have not heard back.

City officials were not always so stingy with information. In mid-March, as the lockdown started, they responded promptly when DNX reporters asked about Covid-19 preparations. This positive response prompted DNX reporters to forego filing formal information requests for the time being. They also feared that formal requests would be processed only when the quarantine was already over. But in April, when DNX asked for spending details, city officials were no longer as open as before. “Finding sources is as difficult as catching a greased pig let loose,” said Julius Mariveles, DNX’s executive editor. 

Like city officials, barangay officials, who are responsible for releasing cash subsidies, delivering relief goods, and keeping the peace in their communities, were also unwilling to give information. Mariveles says being “out on the field” has become a common excuse for these officials’ inability to provide data.

DNX has so far released just one Money Watch story. It revealed discrepancies in the number of targeted and actual beneficiaries of the city’s Covid-19 financial assistance, as well as the lack of reports from several barangays.

The national government has allocated at least P500 billion to address the impact of the pandemic that has killed nearly a thousand Filipinos and placed millions out of work because of the lockdown. This amount does not include emergency funds that local governments can tap in addition to any revenue and savings that they may also decide to use for Covid-19-related expenses. 

DNX’s small team of four reporters tried their best to report on how Bacolod apportioned public funds for coronavirus projects. But they were at their wit’s end: With limited access to data and sources plus pandemic-related constraints on field reporting, there was only so much they could do.

In Metro Manila, Cebu, and other parts of the country, journalists who shared their experiences with PCIJ encountered varying levels of difficulty, depending on the type of information they were requesting. While information about the national government’s plan and budget to fight the virus are readily available online, getting more detailed information on how the plans are being implemented and the money spent is another story. 

Obtaining details about Covid-19 spending at the local level has been especially difficult. Unlike frontline agencies at the national level, local governments do not proactively publish data on their websites. Moreover, with press briefings now online, officials and their PR staff often screen questions from the media, making it harder for reporters to demand answers. 

Since March, when government offices were wholly or partly closed, most routine requests for information have not been processed. The Philippines is among many governments in the world that had to suspend the processing of freedom-of-information or FOI requests because of the pandemic. 

The PCOO has so far issued four advisories notifying offices in the executive branch of the suspension of FOI processing. The advisories apply only to agencies covered by Executive Order 2, s. 2016, which laid out the Duterte administration’s FOI guidelines. 

On June 1, PCOO lifted the suspension of FOI processing, except in areas under Enhanced Community Quarantine (ECQ). But it said agencies with sufficient capacity can go ahead and process FOI requests despite quarantine regulations.

The other branches of government – Congress, the judiciary and local governments – were not covered by the suspension, but their responses to information requests were understandably slowed down because offices have not been in full operation for at least 10 weeks. Although the ECQ in Metro Manila was lifted on June 1, government offices still follow alternative work arrangements, which means shortened hours or suspension of certain services.

These measures have exacerbated delays in the release of information crucial for holding government accountable. For example, for over a year now, PCIJ’s longstanding request for the statements of assets of national government officials has been pending because the Office of the Ombudsman has yet to issue guidelines for releasing such documents. 

To be sure, a number of national agencies, particularly those at the frontlines of Covid-19 response, have published records proactively, without the need for a formal information request. Some departments, despite operating on a skeleton staff, continue to accept and respond to requests by email. 

But things were better last year. From October 2018 to September 2019, the PCOO received 18,036 eFOI requests or an average of 347 requests per week. Nearly half of these requests were granted. During the ongoing quarantine until May 27, an average of 318 requests were lodged in the eFOI portal every week but the success rate was just 17 percent. 

According to Republic Act 6713 or the Code of Conduct and Ethical Standards for Public Officials and Employees, public-records requests must be addressed within 15 working days. Executive Order 2, s. 2016 gave executive agencies more time — not longer than 20 business days — to respond to such requests. 
With the lockdown, however, government agencies could not meet these deadlines. PCOO Assistant Secretary Kristian R. Ablan says PCOO suspended the required processing time because of the “justifiable concerns” of FOI officers that they may be held liable if they fail to address requests within the prescribed period.
FOI officers working from home said they lacked internet connection, office equipment such as laptop computers and scanners and digital copies of files. They also found it difficult to coordinate remotely with record custodians. 

The health and safety of the FOI officers were also factored in. “We didn’t want to put their health at risk during ECQ,” he says.

Jenina Joy Chavez, co-convener of the Right to Know, Right Now!Coalition (R2KRN), acknowledged these difficulties. Speaking at an online forum on May 27, she said suspending FOI operations may be necessary, but she also asked whether the government has done anything to help agencies respond to information requests even during a lockdown.

“Whether or not we’re in quarantine, the importance of the right to information remains the same,” said Chavez. During the quarantine, citizens yielded or entrusted power and resources to government, she said. Transparency measures are needed so the public is able to seek accountability and protection. 

On March 29, R2KRN asked the inter-agency task force and departments implementing the government’s Covid-19 action plan for a copy of the plans and structure of the task force as well as for specific sets of documents and data held by the departments of health, social welfare, agriculture, labor, and budget, and the Philippine Government Electronic Procurement System.

The status of this request is being published online and updated weekly by the coalition members, including PCIJ. Most of the information requested has been partially fulfilled, but most of the releases are in PDFs, not in open-data or spreadsheet format that make the numbers easier to analyze.

R2KRN publishes weekly reports on the quality of information being provided by frontline agencies. Its May 5 report said that the health department is perhaps the only government agency that collects, processes, posts, and updates information on a regular basis. 

The coalition also raised questions about the completeness of the data. For instance, the daily Covid-19 case counts do not give a full picture of how the virus is spreading. Moreover, only 1,782 of more than 23,000 registered health facilities have submitted details on health capacity and needs. “With incomplete information, it is not clear how capable the health system really is to deal with the Covid-19 emergency,” R2KRN said.

In its May 12 report, R2KRN noted the sparse data released by the DSWD’s Disaster Response Operations Monitoring and Information Center (DROMIC), where updates on Covid-19 assistance are posted.  

The DROMIC provides data broken down by province and city, but does not say how many families have received assistance. It also does not disaggregate new from cumulative data, which would have been helpful in determining the rate of response by government and private entities.

The attempt to publish the list of SAP beneficiaries was commendable, said R2KRN. 

However, most of the links are down. The list is also partial and only includes areas that have reports from the DSWD’s field offices. Information can be downloaded but only as PDFs. 

Ryan Macasero, Rappler’s Cebu Bureau reporter, says he has been able to obtain Covid-19-related information but the process has become more laborious. Getting answers from officials, who may only be reached through virtual press briefings or call and chat, has taken more time and effort. 

“It makes their lives easier, but our jobs more difficult,” he says.

What seems to work, Macasero says, is when many reporters ask the same question. 

“We back each other up in the agencies’/office’s official media group chats and say we have the same question to try to emphasize that it’s important they answer us regarding these questions, because it’s information the public needs to know.” –With additional research   by Arjay Guarino, PCIJ, June 2020

Access to PH Justice System Suffers Amid the Lockdown

The pandemic is laying bare lingering issues such as abuse of power, human rights violations, lack of access to the justice system, overcrowded jails and detention centers, lack of accountability, weaponization of the law, and impunity.

BY ANGELICA CARBALLO PAGO/Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism

TWO months of lockdown have put the Philippine justice system under more stress and farther away from the reach of ordinary citizens.

Lawyers from the multisectoral network Courts Appointments Watch PH pointed to illegal or warrantless arrests, maltreatment of quarantine violators, transgression of labor laws, and a crackdown on free expression during a webinar titled “Access to Justice Under a Pandemic Crisis” on Wednesday, May 19.

Lack of legal information and access to the complex and formalistic judicial system has long been a problem for the poor and those in far-flung areas, said lawyer Sheila Formento of Alternative Law Groups (ALG).

In 2017, the Philippines had 2,200 courts, equivalent to just one court for every 50,000 people, according to figures submitted to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.

That same year, one prosecutor handled an average 166 cases and disposed of 145 cases, according to the National Prosecution Service. At the Public Attorney’s Office, which serves indigent litigants, each lawyer handled 465 cases in 2018.
Courts constrained

Posting bail for detainees became particularly difficult, even for those with money, because of limited court operations during the lockdown.

“Even those who scraped up money for bail ay nahirapan pa rin makapagpiyansa dahil sa dami ng requirements at nahihirapan din magbayad,” said lawyer Jose Manuel ‘Chel’ Diokno of the Free Legal Assistance Group (FLAG).

(Even those who scraped up money for bail had a hard time because of so many requirements. It was also difficult to make payments.)

In some areas, bail could only be paid through state-owned Land Bank of the Philippines. Some branches were open just three times a week and for only half a day. Interbranch payments, ATM, and online banking services were not accepted.

In just a month after the enhanced community quarantine (ECQ) was enforced, the Philippine National Police (PNP) arrested 31,363 individuals, 2,467 of which were still in detention. Police filed 24,248 cases of quarantine violations.

These cases were on top of the arrests and killings under the war on drugs, which continued despite the lockdown. 

Dahil sa limitadong operasyon ng mga korte, ‘yung mga pending na kaso ay lalong made-delay at dahil madadagdagan pa ng mga violation ng ECQ, mas lalo pa itong dadami,” Formento said.

(Because of limited operations of the courts, pending cases will be further delayed, and the case loads will swell as violations of the ECQ pile up.)

Food or bail money?

Lawyers from the multisectoral network said unchecked abuses and human rights violations by law enforcers, as well as delays in the resolution of cases, have contributed to growing distrust in the judicial system among the poor and disadvantaged.

In many communities, the choice was either to post bail or go hungry, and the poor would rather spend their money on food and other necessities than file a case against abusers, ALG said.

Online initiatives to help to those in need, including remote legal advice and electronic filing of cases and bail petitions, were hampered by poor internet connection in far-flung communities and even in urban poor areas, it said.

The group has developed information materials on individual rights at checkpoints and during arrests, as well as on court procedures and other relevant issuances. 

Isang malaking hamon ang ibinigay ng pandemic na ito sa ating justice system. Bagama’t may kakulangan sa pasilidad at sa kahandaan ng organisasyon, dapat siguraduhing ang hustisya ay gumugulong para sa lahat. Kailangan ng pagmamatyag nating lahat na siguruhin ito,” Formento said.

(The pandemic is a big challenge to our justice system. Even if there’s a lack of facilities and organizational preparedness, the wheels of justice need to turn for everyone. We have to keep watch to make sure of that.)

Unwarranted arrests

Diokno said the pandemic further underscored lingering issues such as abuse of power, human rights violations, lack of access to the justice system, overcrowded jails and detention centers, lack of accountability, weaponization of the law, and impunity.

He cited instances when rules on warrantless arrests were not observed during the quarantine.

By law, warrantless arrests are allowed only in three situations: 1) when the crime is committed in the presence of police or in flagrante delicto, 2) when in hot pursuit based on personal knowledge of who committed the crime and 3) when arresting escaped prisoners.

“Unfortunately, the power to arrest without warrant has been, in my opinion, misused,” said Diokno.

Warrantless arrests have been used against people over jokes, memes, satires, and even legitimate opinions and speech on social media. 

In Cebu, Bambi Beltran was arrested for posting a satirical Facebook status, and the Zambales teacher Ronnel Mas, who posted a reward to “kill” President Duterte on Twitter, was brought to Manila under questionable circumstances.

“This pandemic has exposed the flaws in our justice system,” said Diokno. 

Diokno also said it was not unusual to hear of a poor person being arrested for a simple quarantine violation and then detained for more than 20 days.

FLAG also received reports that some detainees were beaten up in crowded jails, where social distancing was next to impossible, he said. (See related story: Philippine Jails are a Covid-19 Time Bomb)

Labor rights take the backseat

Job security and labor rights have also suffered as workers bore the brunt of business losses due to the lockdown, said Marco Gojol of National Union of Workers in Hotel, Restaurant and Allied Industries-Sentro (Nuwhrain-Sentro). 

Gojol said many companies were poised to let go of employees with losses mounting due to extended closures. Many companies were unable to get government subsidies, he said. 

Ang isa sa pinakamalaking issues na kinakaharap ng workers ngayon ay income loss. Maraming kumpanya ang napilitang itigil ang operasyon at apektado ang maraming no-work, no-pay (na mga manggagawa),” Gojol said.

(One of the big issues faced by workers is income loss. Many companies have been forced to stop operations and workers in no-work, no-pay arrangements have been affected.) 

Many employers avoided stoppage by shifting to alternative modes of work, such as work-from-home and skeletal operations, but regular employees were prioritized over contractual employees, Gojol said.

In areas under the less restrictive general community quarantine, employees had a hard time going to work because of lack of public transportation. Safety remained a question mark in the absence of mass testing for the coronavirus disease, he said.

Moreover, union-busting did not stop during the pandemic, and some workers were dismissed for demanding safe workplaces and protocols, Gojol said.

Gojol said food and beverage workers from the Sentro labor centerfiled a notice of strike due to lack of safety protocols in their workplace on May 18. The notice was received but not docketed by the National Conciliation and Mediation Board, whose operations were put on standstill by the pandemic.

Gojol called on justice system stakeholders to help the labor sector find ways to protect the fundamental rights of workers amid the Covid-19 outbreak. 

He cited the Department of Labor and Employment’s Advisory 17, which encouraged workers and employees to negotiate temporary adjustments to wages and other benefits.

Habang may pandemya, inevitable ang labor-management disputes. Paano ia-address ng mga parties ang issues ngayong ‘new normal’ at paano magwo-work iyong mga dispute resolution mechanisms in this situation?” Gojol said. 

(Labor-management disputes are inevitable during the pandemic. How will the parties address these issues during the ‘new normal’ and how will dispute resolution mechanisms work in this situation?)

Media, free expression under threat

Karol Ilagan of the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism said truth-telling and holding government to account have become even more important during the pandemic.

“The crisis is transforming the business of journalism from gathering information, reporting, research to production, publishing and broadcast. It comes at a time when our role in disseminating reliable and verifiable information and holding power to account has never been more critical,” she said. 

The government’s pandemic response, however, has been accompanied by threats to press freedom, freedom of expression, and journalists’ safety. Some of these measures were meant, ostensibly, to stem the spread of disinformation, Ilagan said.

Ilagan cited the provision penalizing fake news in the “Bayanihan to Heal as One Act,” which has been weaponized to punish or stifle dissenting voices, especially those on social media.

According to a report published by the Freedom for Media, Freedom for All netowrk, at least 60 individuals have been charged by government officials on the basis of this provision of the pandemic response law. (See related story: Journalists Struggle to Cover the Pandemic as Space for Media Freedom Shrinks)

In a jab against press freedom, ABS-CBN, the country’s biggest media network, was shut down on May 5 as lawmakers allowed its broadcast license to expire under pressure from the Duterte government.

 The shutdown has deprived Filipinos of access to information during the pandemic, and has jeopardized the livelihood of 11,000 network employees.

The Philippine Press Institute said over half of its members had ceased printing due to economic losses, and layoffs were expected in the next few months across media companies. ABS-CBN has said it would be forced to lay off workers by August without a new franchise.

“Reporters and newsrooms are under intense pressure during this pandemic, which is arguably the most complex story that we can cover right now. At stake is the public’s right to know at a time when the stakes are even higher,” Ilagan said.

While information about the pandemic has been made available online by various government agencies, access to other information about the inner workings of government has generally been delayed, she said.

The Presidential Communications Operations Office for a time has ordered the suspension of responding to Freedom of Information (FOI) requests during the quarantine period. Not all agencies cater to FOI requests, resulting in longer waiting times and delays for journalists looking for stories during the pandemic.

Bright spots still in sight

Ilagan said collaboration was key to tackling the difficulties and challenges posed by the Covid-19 pandemic as media and other stakeholders seek transparency and accountability in the legal system and the government.

“If we are to talk about solutions, there should be a concerted effort, particularly with the spread of disinformation. Alam nating aggressive ang nagpapakalat nito. We have to be more vigilant in providing verified and reliable info. And we have to work extra hard kasi nahihirapan tayo to do our job given the practical limitations,” Ilagan said.

Ria Nadora of the Association of Law Students of the Philippines urged the public to join in the national discourse for improved access to the justice system by using online spaces and social media.

“Not being silent about the matter helps in its own little way,” Nadora said.

Lyceum of the Philippines law dean Ma. Soledad Deriquito-Mawis, past president and chairperson of the Philippine Association of Law Schools, was optimistic of the solutions discussed during the webinar.

“This pandemic was not able to put a curse on our spirit in defending our freedoms and fighting for our rights. This pandemic did not put to sleep the Filipino spirit,” Mawis said.

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PCIJ is a member of Court Appointments Watch PH. The CAW webinars and its coverage are made possible by the support of The Asia Foundation.— PCIJ, May 2020

Int’l and local media groups call for Tacloban journalist’s freedom amid COVID

Media organizations worldwide are calling for the release of Tacloban-based reporter Frenchie Mae Cumpio and other jailed journalists throughout Asia amid the sweeping coronavirus pandemic.

In a letter dated April 27, 74 organizations called on Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, People’s Republic of China President Xi Jinping, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Myanmar State Counsellor Aung Sun Suu Kyi, Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan, and Vietnamese President Nguyen Phu Trong to release imprisoned journalists in response to calls from various quarters to decongest and prevent coronavirus contagion in jails.

The New York-based Committee for the Protection of Journalists (CPJ) began a campaign on March 30 called #FreeThePress, launching a petition and publishing an open letter to world leaders urging the immediate release of all journalists imprisoned for their work.

“Given that a staggering number of these imprisoned journalists are held in jails across the Asian continent, we are reiterating that call to your respective countries at this time of grave public health concern,” the letter reads.

The media and rights organizations said the release of the jailed journalists is in line with the protection of free press and the free flow of information at the current crucial times.

“For journalists jailed in countries affected by the virus, freedom is now a matter of life and death. Imprisoned journalists have no control over their surroundings, cannot choose to isolate, and are often denied necessary medical care,” it adds.

According to CPJ’s most recent annual prison census conducted last December 1, there were at least 63 journalists in prisons in Asia, including 48 in China, 12 in Vietnam, two in India, and one in Myanmar.

As of March 31, at least five journalists have been released, four in China and one in Vietnam, according to CPJ research.

However, at least five more journalists have been arrested since December 1, including Cumpio in the Philippines, Sovann Rithy in Cambodia, Chen Jiaping in China, Gautam Navlakha in India, and Mir Shakil-ur-Rahman in Pakistan.

United Nations Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders Michael Forst supports the call for the release of Frenchie Mae Cumpio (Photo by Raymund B. Villanueva/Kodao)

Cumpio, reporter and executive director of the community media group Eastern Vista and a radio host at Aksyon Radyo in Palo, Leyte was arrested in a pre-dawn raid by the police at a Church-owned property on allegations of illegal possession of firearms and explosives.

Cumpio’s colleagues and supporters said the police charges are not only trumped-up but ridiculous.

The letter, sent electronically to the said heads of state, was signed by 74 media, press freedom and human rights organizations, including the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines and the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism.

“Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights guarantees everyone the right to freedom of opinion and expression without interference and the right to seek, receive, and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers,” the letter notes.

It further cites the World Health Organization: “People deprived of their liberty, and those living or working in enclosed environments in their close proximity, are likely to be more vulnerable to the COVID-19 disease than the general population.” # (Raymund B. Villanueva)

Philippine Jails are a Covid-19 Time Bomb

The Philippines has the most crowded correctional system in the world. It’s only a matter of time before the virus enters and spreads in prison and jail facilities. Humanitarian groups have called for the early release of elderly and sickly and nonviolent, low-risk detainees.

BY AIE BALAGTAS SEE/Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism

ON APRIL 1, the police brought to a jampacked detention center at the Quezon City Police District headquarters 21 residents of a poor community who had been arrested for breaking quarantine rules. 

 When they got there, the detainees were not tested for the coronavirus nor were they isolated from other inmates. “The police just took their body temperature using a thermal scanner and that was it,” said lawyer Kristina Conti, who represented them.

Since none of them showed Covid-19 symptoms, said Conti, they were locked up without being required to undergo a 14-day quarantine. 

Because the detention cells were already full, the 16 men were kept outside a 5×5 meter cell for male detainees that already housed nearly a dozen other inmates. Later they were moved to another cell, all of them crammed in a 3×4-meter space. The women were placed with other female detainees in a separate cell. 

 “Social distancing, of course, is impossible,” Conti said. At night, the inmates slept side-by-side on the same cold floor. They didn’t have easy access to toilets, making frequent handwashing difficult. The jail did not provide rubbing alcohol, masks or soap, although some donors sent some supplies. 

 Police lockups like those at the Quezon City police headquarters in Diliman are temporary holding areas for suspects undergoing investigation or awaiting court orders that would send them to more permanent detention centers. 

On March 14, just before the Metro Manila lockdown, the Bureau of Jail Management and Penology (BJMP) suspended the transfer of these suspects to the 467 district, city and municipal jails under its jurisdiction. 

 This means that suspected offenders will have to be kept indefinitely in small lockups in police precincts that do not have clinics nor doctors and nurses on staff. Most of these also do not have enough toilets or showers to service the influx of new inmates.

 As of last week, more than 20,000 had been arrested for quarantine and curfew violations. Most have been released and will face charges once the health crisis is over. Some 4,000 are currently being detained in police lockups and are awaiting transfer to city jails.

 “If the police continue to arrest, their detainee population will continue to grow and will make their situation worse,” said Raymund Narag, an associate professor at Southern Illinois University and an expert in Philippine jails. “Our police detention centers are extremely congested and do not have the capacity to segregate, much more isolate, infected individuals.”

LOCKED UP. Detainees at the Manila Police District Station 5.
File photograph: Rick Rocamora. This image appeared in Rocamora’s 2018 photobook Human Wrongs, a six-year project that documented life inside Philippine detention centers.

Health risks of overcrowded jails

Narag was once a prisoner himself, having spent six years at the Quezon City Jail before he was found innocent of involvement in a fraternity rumble that resulted in the death of one student.

“The Philippines has the most crowded correctional system in the world,” he said. “It is only a matter of time before infections creep into the very congested jail and prison facilities.” 

Like other prison advocates around the world, Narag is calling for the release of nonviolent, low-risk, and bailable pretrial detainees as well as vulnerable, elderly, and sickly convicts. 

Both the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and Human Rights Watch have also asked the government to release nonviolent prisoners, saying overpopulated prisons, jails and lock-up cells make them fertile grounds for spreading infectious diseases. 

“The early release of the most vulnerable detainees (elderly, sick) and those with minor offenses is an option that could be taken by the Philippine government,” said ICRC spokesperson Allison Lopez.

OVERCROWDED. Detainees sleep cheek by jowl at the Quezon City detention center. File photograph: Rick Rocamora. This image appeared in Rocamora’s 2018 photobook Human Wrongs, a six-year project that documented life inside Philippine detention centers.

According to the BJMP, jails across the country are running at 500% overcapacity. In March this year, these jails had 134,748 detainees nationwide, a 40% increase since 2015, largely because of the surge of detainees from the government’s anti-drug campaign.

Even before the pandemic, poor jail conditions have already resulted in the death of 300 to 800 inmates annually in recent years, according to BJMP doctor Paul Borlongan. In 2018 alone, 40 prisoners died each month in different BJMP jails in Metro Manila, said Narag.

The 21 residents who were arrested on April 1 came from Sitio San Roque in Quezon City’s Barangay Bagong Pag-asa, which has six recorded Covid-19 cases. Earlier that day, the residents had gathered near the Trinoma mall along North EDSA to demand government aid because they were hungry.

After five days in detention, all 21 were released on bail on Monday afternoon. They returned to their shanties in Sitio San Roque, where some 6,000 families live in crowded settlement of tiny, wooden and cinderblock homes.

A patchwork of detention policies

Lt. Gen. Guillermo Eleazar, the deputy police chief for operations, is aware that locking up new inmates poses a threat to the safety of the prisoners and the jail staff. 

The police does not want to congest the jails any further, he said, and would prefer to release violators after 12 hours. But they also need to abide by the national government’s orders and with the desire of many local officials to get quarantine and curfew violators off the streets.

The result is a patchwork of policies depending on what local governments mandate. In the city of Manila, Eleazar said, violators were freed immediately after cases had been filed. But some cities like Navotas complained “that people will not learn their lesson if the police release them.” When the police warned that a steady stream of new inmates could wreak havoc on detention centers, Navotas used schools as a temporary lockup.

NAVOTAS CITY JAIL DETAINEES. The Philippines has the most crowded correctional system in the world. File photograph: Rick Rocamora. This image appeared in Rocamora’s 2018 photobook Human Wrongs, a six-year project that documented life inside Philippine detention centers.

Senior Supt. Baby Noel Montalvo, BJMP’s director for Health Service, said that even before the pandemic, most of those transferred to their jails were already “sick or severely ill or have symptoms of respiratory infection.” Accepting new detainees, he said, will only increase the risk of infection and compromise the safety of inmates. 

The Philippines has a three-tiered prison system. The police lockups are the lowest tier. Jails run by the BJMP are for those awaiting trial, are currently being tried or serving short jail terms. Convicted prisoners who are serving sentences of three or more years are sent to facilities run by the Bureau of Corrections (Bucor).

The police, the BJMP and Bucor are using different approaches to dealing with the pandemic. The BJMP implemented the strictest measures—no new detainees and an absolute lockdown that required jail guards to stay inside jails until the quarantine is lifted. In-person visitation was restricted, and the “paabot (pass over)” privilege, where jail staff receive packages from outsiders and deliver them to specific inmates during ordinary lockdowns, was cancelled. 

 The lone exceptions are the jails in Northern Mindanao, where the courts are issuing commitment orders that send detainees to jails. 

SICK IN PRISON. Detainees at the infirmary of Manila City Jail. File photograph: Rick Rocamora. This image appeared in Rocamora’s 2018 photobook Human Wrongs, a six-year project that documented life inside Philippine detention centers.

Less stringent at Bilibid

Bucor is less stringent in its seven facilities, including the national penitentiary known as Bilibid. Visitation rights were cancelled but the paabot system remains in place. Guards are allowed to leave prison and penal colonies after their tour of duty, which usually lasts for a week.

Unlike the BJMP, Bucor, with a current inmate population of 49,584, is still accepting new prisoners. Spokesman Gabriel Chaclag said the latest addition arrived in late March. Newly arrived detainees are evaluated for a week or two before they join other prisoners.

Bucor officials came under Senate scrutiny last year because of the alarming number of prison deaths in the national penitentiary. Henry Fabro, the chief of the Bilibid hospital, said one prisoner there dies each day. Officials blamed overpopulation for the deaths.

Chaclag insisted that social distancing was “possible” within Bucor compounds, unlike in other jails. He could not explain why that was the case, saying only that prisoners were “old enough” to decide how to implement social distancing among themselves. “Because of the information drive, they took it upon themselves to maintain their distance from one another. They no longer eat or pray together,” he said.

The risks, however, are not just that the prisoners will infect each other. Eventually, jail and prison officers will have to go home, take a rest, and recharge. When that happens, corrections staff will be exposed to the coronavirus and risk infecting the prisoners when they return. As one jail official told Narag, “One miss, we all die.”

Meanwhile, jails are preparing for the inevitable. Bilibid has prepared nine buildings for Covid-19 patients. Cities are setting aside isolation areas for infected inmates. In some, there is space for only one person; in others, isolation facilities can take 100 to 300 patients.

Money rules in Manila City Jail

The Manila City Jail has set aside an old building formerly used by tuberculosis patients as an isolation area. In addition, dorms and offices are disinfected daily, with inmates cleaning their own spaces to avoid contact with the staff. 

There are 14 dormitories in the jail, all of them so overcrowded, they could not possibly take any more. The facility was built for 1,100 inmates but currently houses 4,888.

Lawrence, a former Manila City Jail detainee who asked that his full name not be revealed, said money and power rule these dormitories. Those with the means pay dorm leaders so they can sleep in private cubicles called kubols. Lawrence said a kubol measures around 2×2 meters. They are “not big but provide enough space so you can stretch your arms and feet.”

Others less fortunate take turns sleeping or sleep in crouched positions, spilling out into hallways and corridors because of the lack of space. 

KUBOL. Private cubicles for rent in Manila City Jail. File photograph: Rick Rocamora. This image appeared in Rocamora’s 2018 photobook Human Wrongs, a six-year project that documented life inside Philippine detention centers.

Lawrence stayed in Dormitory 3 for two years. At night, he recalled, one has “to tread carefully” to avoid stepping on bodies that were like landmines on the floor. “If you accidentally step on an inmate, you will get whipped several times,” he said. The number of lashes depends on the power and position wielded by the offended party.

 Access to bathrooms is another luxury. “High-ranking detainees” like Lawrence can use bathrooms with showers and properly functioning toilets. Poor inmates use common toilets that even visitors are not allowed to use “because the stench gets so bad, it’s really embarrassing.” Common bathrooms have no doors, he said. They have tubs called “swimming pools” which inmates fill with water. Toilets are holes directly connected to drainage canals.

 In 2016, when Lawrence was first jailed, there were only 127 detainees in Dormitory 3. He left behind 605 dorm occupants in 2018, most of them facing drug charges. Despite the lockdown, arrests of drug suspects continue.

 For all the worries about the prisoners’ health, Interior Government Secretary Eduardo Año, who supervises BJMP, said jails are “the safest place right now.” Prisoners, he said, risk exposure to the virus if they were released. 

 “All prison detention cells are COVID-free,” he said in a statement. 

 Up to now, however, no jail guards or inmates in any of the Philippine jails, prisons and police detention centers, have been tested for Covid-19. #

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Aie Balagtas See is a freelance journalist working on human rights issues. Follow her on Twitter (@AieBalagtasSee) or email her at a[email protected] for comments.

Rick Rocamora is an award-winning documentary photographer and author of four photo books; Filipino WWII Soldiers: America’s Second Class Veterans, Blood, Sweat, Hope and Quiapo; Rodallie S. Mosende Story, Human Wrongs, and Alagang Angara, a book that highlights the legislative achievements of Senator Ed Angara that continues to benefit our people and nation after his passing. His work is part of the permanent collection of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Arts, U.S. State Department Art in Embassies Program, and private and institutional collectors. His work is widely exhibited in national and international museums and galleries, published in print and online and aired in various broadcast news outlets. In the Philippines, his work had been exhibited at the Cultural Center of the Philippines, Ben Cab Museum, Vargas Museum, and Ateneo Art Gallery. His exhibition, Bursting at the Seams: Inside Philippine Detention Centers won national and international awards for Filipinas Heritage Gallery of the Ayala Museum. Before pursuing a career in documentary photography, he worked in sales, marketing, and management positions for the US pharmaceutical industry for 18 years. — PCIJ, April 2020

Life doubly harder in Marawi shelters as coronavirus grounds aid groups

Marawi residents find it hard to follow precautions against the novel coronavirus disease when relief goods are limited and water trucks are reducing trips. Local authorities say they do not have enough resources to feed the people for an extended period. They need outside help.


RESIDENTS trooped to the small mosque at Area 1 Temporary Shelter in Marawi City’s Sagonsongan village for the Friday prayers on March 27. They were aware they were violating instructions from the barangay chairman to observe physical distancing, a precaution against the highly contagious novel coronavirus disease that has killed at least three fellow Maranaos.

“They prayed side by side, but they were all wearing masks,” said Saipoding Mariga Mangotara, one of about 17,000 Marawi residents still living in shelters three years after the siege that flattened the city center and destroyed their homes.

The mosque-goers had a plea to Allah. They prayed for the virus to go away so that quarantine measures, which had made life even more difficult, would end.

The disease has killed over 50,000 and infected more than a million people around the world by the first week of April. The Philippines confirmed more than a hundred deaths and over 3,000 infections during the same period, but experts said the country’s poor testing rate means there are thousands more undetected cases.

Marawi City Mayor Majul Gandamra ordered all village chiefs to strictly impose “enhanced community quarantine” measures on March 19, grounding Mangotara and his neighbors inside their 24-square-meter homes.

Quarantine measures such as military and police checkpoints have hurt people’s livelihoods, including those of about 1,500 tricycle drivers and an undetermined number of “pedicab traders” who earned their living going around barangays to sell fish and vegetables.

They’re no longer allowed to go outside the shelters to earn money to buy food. Those who do have money have found it difficult to pass through checkpoints to reach the markets. There are sari-sari stores, but residents are afraid the owners will soon shut them down to keep the supply for their own families.

“We’re like chickens in a coop. We can’t get out. It’s hard because we’re running out of food. We don’t have income. We can’t buy,” said Mangotara.

Residents at the shelter got food packs from the local government, but a few kilos of rice and canned goods would last only a few days. Private donations, which have helped them get by since their displacement in 2017, have arrived in trickles since the quarantine. Even feeding programs have stopped because of crowding.

Saipoding Mariga Mangotara and wife Geraldine inside their home at Area 1 temporary shelter in Marawi City’s Sagonsongan village. File photo: Carmela Fonbuena

No more fieldwork

The quarantine has grounded most, if not all, aid and development groups operating in Marawi City, even if they’re exempted from the lockdown measures along with health workers and other emergency front liners. Task Force Bangon Marawi field office manager Felix Castro Jr., who oversees activities in the shelters, said there were no requests from the usual groups and foundations to visit the shelters lately.

Marawi residents have been asking for assistance but it’s hard for everyone to move, said Charlito Manlupig, chairman of Balay Mindanaw Foundation, an organization helping communities in Marawi and other parts of Mindanao.

“There’s zero movement among the different aid groups, as far as I know. Almost all partner international agencies have pulled out. No one is allowed to do field work,” Manlupig said.  

It’s a challenge for many temporary shelters, evacuation sites, and vulnerable communities throughout the Philippines that rely on aid groups and foundations.

“I can confirm that though not ended, most of our field activities have been significantly reduced due to the pandemic,” said Allison Lopez, spokesperson for the local chapter of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).

Lopez said the ICRC felt it was important to take precautionary measures to make sure its staff would not inadvertently bring the virus to vulnerable communities.

That meant postponing projects such as cash-for-work programs in Lanao del Sur and Zamboanga del Sur, as well as the distribution of food and household items to displaced people in Agusan del Sur. “These three projects alone cover 1,000 people,” said Lopez.

It’s the same at Oxfam Philippines. Humanitarian manager Rhoda Avila said they, too, have suspended field work for two weeks since the lockdown.

Oxfam was able to install handwashing facilities in some areas before the lockdown, but was forced to postpone a project to install water pump facilities in a conflict community in Maguindanao.

Families in transitory shelters in Marawi City put up sari-sari stores to augment their income.
File photo: Carmela Fonbuena

Scared of disease and hunger

Authorities have vowed to protect the Marawi shelters in case of a wider outbreak. Asnin Pendatun, cabinet secretary of the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region for Muslim Mindanao, said they were closely watching Lanao del Sur, where Marawi City is located, because it had the most number of COVID-19 infections.

All six cases in the region as of March 31 were residents of Marawi City and Lanao del Sur. Three elderly cases have died, two were admitted to the Amai Pakpak Medical Center in Marawi, and one was quarantined at home.

This graphics is posted the Facebook page of the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao Interagency Task Force on COVID-19.

But authorities were still tracking attendees of a religious gathering in Malaysia from Feb. 27 to March 1, which was linked to clusters of coronavirus cases in Malaysia, Singapore, and Brunei, Pendatun said. There were at least 10 attendees from Lanao del Sur.

Zia Alonto Adiong, Bangsamoro parliament member and spokesperson for the Lanao del Sur COVID-19 task force, said they were wary of undetected cases in the province. “The scarcity of test kits is a problem. We don’t know the exact number of cases, who they are, and where they are. We don’t have the data. It definitely affects the degree of response of the local government units,” he said.

Adiong was worried about asymptomatic cases, too. “They might look healthy but they are carriers of the disease. There has to be mass testing,” he said.

Displaced residents are equally scared.

In March, occupants of Bahay Pag-asa shelters in Buadi Itowa village became agitated. A resident had just returned from Metro Manila – the epicenter of coronavirus outbreak in the country – and developed a fever.

People knew she had been to Greenhills Shopping Center in San Juan, the site of the first known cases of local transmission, and feared she had brought the virus to their community. Panicked residents sent her to Amai Pakpak Medical Center. She later tested negative.

“We were really scared. We thought she caught the disease. There was a misunderstanding. We were all relieved to learn she had tested negative,” said Johanna Abdelfattah, a resident who also serves as community organizer for Balay Mindanaw Foundation.

Hunger is a force much stronger than the virus, however. Two weeks into the quarantine, fears of getting infected were overshadowed by a problem literally closer to the gut – how to get food on the table.

Some have turned fatalistic. “People here say we will die when Allah says it’s our time to die,” said Mangotara.

LGU’s burden

To make the quarantine work, it’s important to guarantee residents they will get food, water, medicines and other necessities, Balay Mindanaw area manager Charmaine Mae Dagapioso Baconga said.

“The people are scared. The people are bored. It’s hard to control their movements. Some people are complaining because it’s really been hard. They’re afraid to get the disease, but they also worry about their livelihood,” said Baconga.

Mayor Gandamra said the city would not be able to feed its people for an extended period without outside help.

“Definitely, we cannot sustain the distribution of food packs if coronavirus drags on and the quarantine measures are extended. We are not the same as the cities in Metro Manila. We are not like Quezon City that has billions of pesos in income,” he said.

Transitional Shelter Sites, as of April 2, 2020

For a population of about 200,000 people, Marawi City only has P2.5 million in its calamity fund each month, which translates to about P870,000 in emergency funds it can spend for coronavirus response. “We’ve been spending way beyond [our budget]. Fortunately, we still have savings,” Gandamra said.

The Bangsamoro regional government has sent food packs to indigents and persons under investigation (PUIs) and persons under monitoring (PUMs) for the disease, hoping to keep them in their homes. “We are coordinating with the province to be able to deliver food packs in batches,” said Pendatun.

As for the national government, the Department of Budget and Management said on April 2 that P100 billion had been released for the distribution of cash aid to poor families all over the country.

Gandamra said city officials were still checking the guidelines to see if residents in the shelters were qualified, as not all of them were beneficiaries of cash transfers under the Pantawid Pamilyang Pilipino Program.

Gandamra and Adiong were counting on private aid groups to find a way to continue assistance to displaced residents of Marawi.

Rice, water supply, medicines

The mayor hopes donors prioritize rice, as fears of a shortage have made it difficult to stockpile on the staple.

“There are provinces that do not want other local government units to buy from them. They are keeping their supply for their own people. We understand they’re protecting themselves, but there will be areas that will not have rice if the situation gets worse,” Gandamra said.

Water supply was always a problem, but coronavirus has made it worse. Water trucks that used to fill up their tanks were reducing trips lately, making it harder for residents to follow hygiene rules and handwashing instructions, Mangotara and Abdelfattah said.

Castro said there was a temporary disruption because the Marawi task force had to issue clearances to let truck drivers pass through checkpoints in Iligan, where many of them lived. He said water distribution would continue, but admitted that supply was not always enough.

There are water pumps in Sagonsongan and Bahay Pag-asa, but Abdelfattah said the queues were often long and supply was unreliable. The pumps broke down frequently because of overuse, she said.

While rains have allowed residents to collect water, they are also a cause of illnesses. “The sun is out one minute, then it rains the next. It’s hot, then cold. People have asked for medicines at the first sign of colds or fever because they’re afraid it might be coronavirus. The barangay has run out of supply,” said Abdelfattah.

Now that dry season has arrived, water pumps are badly needed as there are no rains to augment water supply. Balay Mindanao was unable to transport water pump facilities for communal gardens at Bahay Pag-asa because of the suspension of domestic air travel, Abdelfattah said.

Abdelfattah knew her neighbors envied her because she had a job at the foundation. “I tell them I will not hesitate if it’s in my power to make their lives better. But I also have to be careful with what I say to them because I cannot give them false hopes. I can only do so much right now,” she said.

Three years since the siege, displaced Marawi residents were still struggling to rise again. Coronavirus is poised to set back gains they have made.

“Coronavirus has made our lives doubly harder… I hope none of us will get it. I cannot imagine what’s going to happen to us.”

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Carmela Fonbuena is a freelance journalist based in Manila. Follow her on Twitter (@carmelafonbuena) or email her at [email protected] for comments.