RELATIVES hold photos of some missing cockfighting aficionados (sabungeros) from Manila and Laguna, as they sought help from Malacañang, Jan. 31. — PHILIPPINE STAR/ MICHAEL VARCAS

By Patricia B. Mirasol, Reporter

DIANNE V. LOYOLA’S husband, whose job was to strap hook-shaped blades to the legs of roosters that spar to the death, went missing in January amid suspicions of game-fixing in the online version of a multibillion-peso industry that has since been banned.

The husband, Ferdinand, was one of about three-dozen cockpit workers and players from the main Philippine island of Luzon believed to have been kidnapped over a period of time, when many Filipinos locked down by a coronavirus pandemic got hooked on gambling including e-sabong or online cockfighting.

“E-sabong flourished in our village during the pandemic,” Ms. Loyola, a 32-year-old housewife from Tanay, Rizal, said by telephone in Filipino. “It’s easy to place a bet but it’s easy to lose as well.”

Cockfighting had become an online craze in the Philippines before the government banned the bloodsport amid the disappearance of the workers and players under suspicious circumstances.

The online game carried on livestreaming platforms allowed Filipinos to place bets on their mobile phones while locked down at home.

An international study by David Hodgins in 2021 found that gambling flourished during the lockdown, especially among younger males.

“As a gaffer (a person who puts blades on roosters’ legs) he came home with P500 per win,” said Ms. Loyola, whose husband used to sell motorcycles at Motorlandia. “In e-sabong, he got as much as P2,000. If the rooster lost, he didn’t get anything from his boss.”

Online cockfighting was bad for business, said Verman T. Reyes, who owns lending company Verman Loans, Inc.

“We have employees who got hooked on it,” he said in a Facebook Messenger chat. “Some of our collectors used company money to bet.”

He said some of these workers ended up borrowing to pay back his company. “Others couldn’t be traced anymore.”

Gambling destroys the family, said Randolf S. David, professor emeritus of sociology at the University of the Philippines.

“Trust is eroded, savings meant for emergencies are lost and worse, debts pile up,” he said in an e-mail, noting how the game has been made easily available by technology. “I am glad the government finally decided to stop it, but a lot have gone underground.”

“Responsible governments that are aware of gambling’s effects on their citizens think twice before they license it under very strict regulations,” Mr. David said, noting that it could complement tourism and never as an exclusive revenue source.

Gambling addiction has social costs including domestic violence, child neglect and mental illnesses such as depression, Irene B. Dumlao, officer-in-charge and a director at the Social Welfare department, said in an e-mail.

Recovering gambling addicts advise that it is always best not to even start.

“Nothing can beat the first high,” said 41-year-old Reagan, a recovering gambling addict who has been sober for 11 years. “You’re constantly going to chase that high. I got caught in the thrill of the chase. The more I lost, the stronger my motivation to play.”

He said a gambler usually ends up either in jail, a health institution or dead.

Melbert John Santos, one of the 34 who went missing, was merely hired to drive a group of cockfighters to the AA Cobra Cockpit Arena in Sta. Cruz, Laguna early this year, his live-in partner Rowelyn S. Ebit said by telephone. “His father’s van was hired and he was asked to drive it,” she said. “He wasn’t a gambler.”

Gambling addiction is categorized as a substance-related and addictive disorder in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the first recognized nonsubstance behavioral addiction.

Under a local law on mental health, people suffering from addiction may avail themselves of psychosocial and neurological services.

Gambling disorders may run in the family, said Beverly Denice T. Ongson, a registered psychologist and chartered business administrator of Dear Future Self PH, a mental health service organization. Trauma and social inequity are risk factors, she said in an e-mail.

“Counseling can assist the person in taking control of their gambling habits, mending broken relationships, coping with gambling urges and managing life or work stress,” she said. “It can also help maintain recovery and avoid triggers.”

“Sometimes, I thought of taking my own life,” said Reagan. “Sad to say, the addict holds the stability of the family. If we’re not okay everything falls apart.”

Ms. Loyola and the families of the missing cockfighters are still looking forward to the time when they will see them again.

“Our wish is for them to be released,” she said. “That’s what’s important, that we see our loved ones again.”

Everyone in the cockfighting arena in Sta. Cruz, is tight-lipped, Ms. Ebit said.

“I know that those who took them have families of their own,” she said. “A lot of children are waiting to be nurtured by their fathers again. I wouldn’t wish this to happen to anyone.”