By: Our Correspondent

The burgeoning Chinese presence in the Philippines is generating a new and dangerous industry – loan sharking and gambling-related kidnappings of Chinese, according to a 44-page report by a  Philippines-based risk consultancy.

The kidnappings, almost all by their own countrymen with the occasional aid of the odd Filipino criminal or cop, are obscured somewhat in the report by kidnappings across the country by the communist New People’s Army and the Muslim Abu Sayyaf in southern Mindanao. In addition, kidnappings by suspected or rogue government forces or police have risen dramatically, according to the report, particularly in the national capital region. Other reports indicate that rogue police activity has risen sharply in connection with President Rodrigo Duterte’s drug war.  

In fact, according to the report, available only to subscribers by the firm, which asked to remain anonymous, kidnapping for ransom thrives in the Philippines partly “because of the alleged direct and indirect participation of influential local government officials. Corrupt government officials acting as instigators or protectors of the syndicates intercede in cases filed against syndicate members, allowing the suspects to escape, while some act as negotiators. Often, the involvement of corrupt local officials makes it more difficult for the police to pursue syndicate members.”

Manila’s Paranaque area has over the past several years burgeoned with gigantic casinos, drawing kidnap-for-ransom schemes and loan shark syndicates operating in and around them, particularly in the so-called “Entertainment City” area as the broad, flat landfill plain fronting Manila Bay has sprouted intensive construction.  Ninoy Aquino International Airport is nearby.

Nearly four million Chinese nationals, including those from Hong Kong and Taiwan, have flooded into the Philippines as tourists since 2016 as President Rodrigo Duterte has opened the tourism floodgates.  And, with Macau – the world’s biggest gaming destination – now closely watched by Chinese authorities in a campaign to deter corrupt officials from streaming in to gamble away government funds – the Philippines has become a go-to destination for bureaucrats with hot money.  

In addition, nearly 23,000 Chinese nationals have been given visas to work in the country’s huge offshore gaming industry as the gaming companies migrate across the South China Sea from Macau and the prying eyes of Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption police.

Among those whose presence is also increasing, according to the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency, are the 14K and Sun Yee On triads, which are mostly involved in money laundering, arms dealing and illegal drugs. The triads have thrived in Filipino Chinese areas for decades. In addition, the Taiwan-based United Bamboo Gang is said to be one of the top suppliers of shabu, as methamphetamine is known in the country.

The persistent year-on-year increase in kidnappings of Chinese gamblers, apparently by Chinese gangs, has led an outraged Duterte to describe the 44-hectare Okada Manila casino as a nest of kidnappers, ordering police to stay away from the giant facility. “I’d like to announce, all of you police should get out of there. It’s crawling with usurers, kidnappers,” he said in Tagalog. “If I pass by there and I see you, I’ll run you over,” he said, threatening to dismiss any policeman he saw near the casino. 

Duterte, who has become increasingly disenchanted with the gaming industry and the influx of Chinese operators, late last year fired Nayong Pilipino Foundation officials for entering into a lease contract with a Chinese casino operator.

According to the report, at least 26 kidnap-for-ransom cases involving Chinese in 2018, 14 of them casino-related.  But, according to the firm, it’s likely that there were far more than that, because often the victims don’t notify authorities, especially if they involve casino debt.

“In numerous cases, syndicate members seek out casino patrons that are losing and offer to ‘finance’ (bank-roll) the gambler,” according to the report. “If the gambler continues on a losing streak, the syndicate members will forcibly detain the victim (usually in high-end hotel rooms), and contact their relatives seeking repayment of the gambling debt.”

Not all victims are taken from casinos, the report continues. In a few instances, syndicate members abducted the victims from other locations – the victim’s home in one case – before detaining them in casino hotels. In some cases, but not all, victims have been beaten or otherwise tortured during their detainments.

“These incidents appear to exclusively target foreigners,” the report said. “In a majority of cases, the victims are detained by members of their own ethnicity.

On January 7, 2018, three Taiwanese abducted a fellow Taiwanese national at a casino, for instance. The victim reportedly owed the suspects PHP 100,000. Apparently the victim’s family managed to alert authorities, rescued him two days later at a hotel in nearby Baclaran.

Two weeks later, on January 18, Two Chinese men abducted a Chinese couple inside their house. According to police, the kidnappers operated an online gaming business and accused the victims of losing RMB700,000 (US$110,600. Authorities rescued the victims and arrested the kidnappers two days later.

In October, members of an alleged loan shark syndicate allegedly deceived a Chinese national into traveling to the Philippines for what was described as an all-expense paid vacation.

“Upon the victim’s arrival,” according to the report, “he was brought to a hotel-casino. It is at this point where syndicate members bankrolled the victim for about PHP15 million (US$290,000) to gamble. The victim lost and was not able to repay his debt to the group. The suspects then detained the victim and informed his family of his situation and demanded a ransom worth PHP15 million for his release.”

Authorities rescued the victim and arrested four members of the loan shark group during an entrapment operation at Ninoy Aquino International Airport. The suspects included three Chinese nationals and two locals.

There are other scams, including “Kidnap Me” stratagems, in which alleged kidnappings were found to have been fraudulently reported with the “victim” intending to defraud a friend or relative for the requested “ransom.”
“In these cases, the report found, the “victim” is actually an accomplice (or the sole perpetrator) – they request the true victim to deliver a ransom to secure the ‘release’ of the fraudster. Alternatively, scammers appear to report to their employer that they had been ‘kidnapped’ in order to conceal their having stolen the employer’s assets.”

In the seven cases recorded by the firm, the perpetrators and actual victims of the scams were Filipinos. In several cases, the fraudsters reported being “kidnapped” a second time seeking additional repayment.

The risk analysis firm “strongly advises that clients that they should not attempt to settle ransom demands by themselves. Rather, they should seek the guidance of reputable security professionals such as the National Police Anti-Kidnap Group and/or community support organizations that have experience dealing with these types of situations.”