After years on the run, Marvin George Scharff, who has been on the US government's most wanted list for 16 years, was arrested in Manila recently by authorities.
Scharff wasn't caught by the authorities, however. He gave himself up. Saying he was broke and had no one to turn to for financial help, the 51-year-old fugitive turned himself in to the US Embassy and begged that he be allowed to return to Guam, where he faced arrest on charges of smuggling heroin. He had overstayed his visa by six years.
Scharff apparently isn't the only international fugitive hiding in the Philippines, and he is far from the only one who hasn't been caught, according to a report by the Manila-based country risk analysis firm Pacific Strategies and Assessments. Interpol lists 52 internationally wanted criminals hiding in the Philippines. While most of them are domestic, the list includes fugitives from the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Korea, China, Singapore, India and Indonesia.
Apparently Yakuza – organized gangsters from Japan — head for the Philippines when the going gets tough at home. A former Metropolitan Police investigator told PSA the country has become a Yakuza haven for gangsters who for as little as ¥10,000 (US$122) could purchase entirely new identities. Some even undergo cosmetic surgery, the report says.
In addition, several of the world's most-wanted jihadis are known to be hiding out in the country including Isnilon Hapilon, the leader of Abu Sayyaf, for whom the government has offered a reward of US$5.6 million. Hundreds of thousands of dollars for the country's other top 20 kidnappers remain unclaimed because nobody has turned them in.
Mindanao has traditionally been a haven and training ground for a wide variety of Jihadis from Indonesia and Malaysia as well as countries farther away.
In another case, Arabani Jakiran, who was wanted for two 2001 kidnappings and terrorist attacks in Basilan Province in Mindanao, was discovered working as a security guard at Pacific Plaza Tower in Taguig City, one of the country's most upscale neighborhoods. The arrest calls to mind a 2009 case in Jakarta in which a florist worked in shops in both the JW Marriott and the Ritz-Carlton, which were hit by separate bombings five minutes apart, killing seven and injuring more than 50. The florist, Ibrahim, had been recruited as early as 2000 by terrorists and provided intelligence on the hotel's layout and helped smuggle in the bombs, police said. Ibrahim was later shot by Indonesian police.
Abu Sayyaf's Jakiran, who was recruited by the Men in Blue security agency in the Philippines, was able to obtain employment despite the fact that there was a P350,000 reward on his head.
The country lacks a centralized biometric database of wanted criminals, according to PSA. "Police records of wanted criminals and fugitives in the Philippines remain mostly filed in huge dusty binders and consist primarily of pencil-drawn cartographic sketches) which, unsurprisingly, all tend to look alike), dated photographs, and old fashioned fingerprints," the report says. "These records generally are useless."
Simply by using an alias or intentionally misspelling a name, or changing biographical data, criminals can easily obtain police or National Bureau of Investigation clearances, the report says. Because the fingerprint data are not centralized and recorded electronically, police are often unable to get names to match the prints they do lift.
Added to that, the report says, the Philippines has sophisticated syndicates involved in the production of fake documents for identification purposes that appear to come from a wide range of official agencies. In one computer shop raided by police, they found high-end computers producing national police and armed forces identification cards, National Bureau of Investigation and police clearances, birth and baptismal certificates, marriage contracts, car registrations and professional drivers' licenses, diplomas and a wealth of other documents. Fake documents are even advertised in the open on the internet, the report says.
The Bureau of Immigration told PSA it intends to intensify its efforts to find foreign fugitives hiding in the country "but admitted that many are able to stay in the country for years before they are caught by Interpol or authorities from their home countries. Crimes committed by these foreign nationals range from fraud to murder."
In addition to the primitive criminal intelligence system, the nation's thousands of islands with little or no immigration control are easy for smugglers and criminals to evade immigration officials.
There is also the question of the very culture of the country itself. Ricardo Tiuseco Pamintuan, in a paper for the Asia and Far East Institute for the Prevention of Crime and the Treatment of Offenders, wrote that "In a country like the Philippines, where all forms of wealth are in the hands of a handful of people – the same people who control government, directly or otherwise – transnational organized crime gangs can wreak havoc in every Filipino's life by providing a placebo for society's ills. Using illegally generated money, (the gangs) are able to set up bases of operation wherever they are welcome. Like legitimate corporations, they "invest" heavily in foreign shores, and local officials are all too willing to embrace their presence because of necessity. It is this necessity on which (the gangs) feast."