Authorities in the Philippines have charged or are in the process of charging 13 people with crimes linked to the disappearances of at least 34 stakeholders in the country’s fledgling e-sabong (online cockfighting) market. Among them are five serving police officers.
The Philippines’ Criminal Investigation and Detection Group (CIDG) said Monday it was preparing charges against five policemen identified by witnesses as participating in the kidnapping of e-sabong “master agent” Ricardo “Jon Jon” Lasco Jr.
Earlier in the day, CIDG said it had charged an additional eight suspects with kidnapping and illegal detention. That was in relation to the disappearance in January of six more individuals with connections to the e-sabong industry.
Lasco was kidnapped by a group of armed men from his home in San Pablo City, 90 miles south of the capital of Manila, on August 30th. The men who took him falsely claimed to be members of the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI).
Lasco and at least 33 other victims have not been seen since.
At least four witnesses who were present during the incident positively identified suspects responsible for this case. The identified suspects are policemen,” said CIDG Director Eliseo Cruz said during a hearing of the Senate public order committee into the disappearances Monday.
“Right now, our investigators are now consolidating the sworn statements of our witnesses and other pieces of evidence for the preparation of the filing of appropriate cases against the identified suspects before the Department of Justice (DOJ),” he added.
‘Short on Money’
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has resisted calls from lawmakers to suspend the e-sabong market while the investigation into the disappearances is ongoing. The strongarm leader cited the billions in revenue the new market generates for government coffers.
I will choose now between losing income by the billions. It’s such a waste,” he told lawmakers. “We don’t have money. We’re short on money.”
E-sabong previously existed in a gray area of the law in the Philippines, where cockfighting is a culturally accepted tradition that goes back hundreds of years. But it exploded in popularity during the pandemic, at a time when many live venues were closed to spectators for health and safety reasons.
This spurred the government into taxing and regulating the blood sport. Gambling regulator PAGCOR began issuing licenses for the new market in May 2021, shortly after people started to go missing.
Abductions Linked to Bout-Fixing?
The Philippine Daily Inquirer reports the missing men are all gamefowl handlers, aides, helpers, or vehicle drivers. All are alleged to have been involved in bout-fixing, where the performance of one bird is sabotaged for the benefit of a gambling ring.
Reports in various local media outlets have suggested the motive for the abductions may be retribution against a criminal gambling syndicate.
In the Philippines, it is not unusual for the police to become involved in extrajudicial killings. In fact, Duterte has encouraged vigilantism as part of his war on drugs.
According to Human Rights Watch, as many as 27,000 criminals have been murdered by unidentified gunmen since Duterte’s election in 2016. It is suspected that many of these slayings were perpetrated by police officers or by killers linked to the authorities.
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