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THE Bureau of Customs (BoC) said it has seen more air travelers importing foreign currency beginning in the third quarter of 2019, with most of the cases involving Chinese nationals.

Assistant Commissioner and Spokesperson Vincent Philip C. Maronilla told BusinessWorld that the bureau has stepped up its monitoring of passengers bringing in foreign currency beyond the $10,000 limit.

“The period that we are investigating starts from late last year (around third quarter) up to this time, (for) declared amounts of more than $10,000,” Mr. Maronilla said via telephone Sunday. “Hindi naman s’ya bawal (it’s not prohibited), we just need to inform the AMLC (Anti-Money Laundering Council) and ask the person involved, the passenger, saan nila gagamitin (how the funds will be used),

Separately, the National Intelligence Coordinating Agency (NICA) said it is planning to propose to the Office of the President an executive order (EO) that will create a national task force to address possible money laundering through couriers posing as travelers.

Mr. Maronilla would not discuss the estimated amounts involved and further details of the investigation due to confidentiality concerns but described the amounts as “significant enough to place it under our attention and (require) a specific action plan.”

He said passengers carrying foreign currencies above the declaration limit included those from Hong Kong, Taiwan, and South Korea, but Chinese made up the majority.

“Aside from our intensified monitoring efforts, we also have inter-agency (initiatives). One is with NICA, to come up with a proposal to the President (for) an EO to create a national task force against this because you have to understand, this is not just a Customs issue,” he said.

He said the proposal will initially involve the Bureau of Immigration, the AMLC, the Bureau of Internal Revenue, and Customs.

In a statement Sunday, the bureau flagged “several groups of passenger-couriers declaring huge amounts of foreign currency.”

It said the bureau has been working with AMLC, the Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas (BSP) and other intelligence and law enforcement agencies.

Mr. Maronilla confirmed that the sudden influx of foreign currency conforms with Senator Richard J. Gordon’s observations last week.

Mr. Gordon was reported to have claimed that Chinese nationals have brought in over $160 million in cash into the country since December, and raised the possibility of money laundering activity.

Mr. Maronilla said the bureau will be looking to enforce money-laundering rules in connection with the cash imports.

“The primary offense… will likely be money-laundering,” he said.

Finance Secretary Carlos G. Dominguez III has said that he instructed the bureau to inform the anti-money laundering body about the courier activity.

“The BoC informed me of the volume of foreign currency brought in by travelers who declared the amounts upon arrival. I instructed them to inform AMLC about this,” Mr. Dominguez said.

Another Senator said Sunday that the increased inflows of foreign currency represent a further argument against the Philippine Offshore Gaming Operation (POGO) industry.

He said the Senate Blue Ribbon Committee is planning to investigate foreign currency flows, allegedly by Chinese nationals.

Siguro hindi na malayo ang panahon baka ipilit nila na ipasara yung mga POGOs by canceling the passports of POGO workers (It might not be long before POGOs are forced to close because its workers’ passports will be cancelled),” Senator Franklin M. Drilon said over DzBB Sunday, referring to a Chinese government proposal to cancel POGO workers’ passports.

China considers all forms of gambling to be illegal and has indicated that the POGO set-up represents a workaround that circumvents its prohibitions.

Sa akin, dapat isara itong POGO na ito (In my opinion, POGOs should be shut down), he added.”

The Anti-Money Laundering Act, as amended by Republic Act No. 10927, requires casinos to report single transactions in excess of P5 million or its equivalent in other currency to the Anti-Money Laundering Council (AMLC).

“At this stage, ang kailangang tingnan ‘yung compliance. Nandiyan ‘yung batas. Pwedeng tawagin yung AMLC, yung BSP (Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas), yung PAGCOR (Philippine Amusement and Gaming Corp.) (We need to monitor compliance with the law by the AMLC, BSP, and PAGCOR),” he said.

He said POGOs do not directly benefit the Philippine economy, in terms of employment.

Walang malaking contribution sa ating ekonomiya; hindi nakakadagdag ng trabaho dahil puro naman Chinese nationals; yung real estate, tinatawag nating bubble o artificial ang pagtaas ng real estate (The industry does not make a major contribution to the economy; it does not boost employment because the workers are all Chinese; it has created a real estate bubble),” he said. — Beatrice M. Laforga, Charmaine A. Tadalan