Manila (Philippine Daily Inquirer/ANN) - Philippine authorities have launched a manhunt for the brains behind the pyramid scam that duped some 15,000 people in Mindanao and the Visayas of 12 billion pesos (US$291 million).
But Manuel K. Amalilio, a 32-year-old founder of Aman Futures Group Phils. Inc., who is reportedly of Filipino-Malaysian descent, has left the country for Sabah, Malaysia. Amalilio's Malaysian name is Mohammad Suffian Saaid.
The Philippines has no extradition or mutual legal assistance treaties with Malaysia, according to the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA).
Even so, the Department of Justice knows of alternative mechanisms, including the International Criminal Police Organisation, to bring international criminals to justice, DFA spokesperson Raul Hernandez said in a text message yesterday.
Amalilio was seen in Kota Kinabalu, Sabah, last week by an Ozamiz City-based businessman who was victimised by the firm, according to Pagadian City Mayor Samuel Co.
"Dr. Rico Medina called me up immediately after his confrontation with Amalilio, saying that his group was outnumbered by Amalilio's security escorts," said Co, himself a victim of Aman Futures.
Virgilio Mendez, National Bureau of Investigation deputy director for regional operations services, confirmed that Amalilio, the CEO of Aman Futures, had already left the country.
"We have confirmed that Amalilio is now in Kota Kinabalu," he said.
Mendez said no warrant of arrest had been issued against Amalilio and other officials of the company. "A warrant has yet to be issued by the court. We filed the information in the Office of the City Prosecutor of Pagadian City three weeks ago," he said.
President Benigno Aquino III has ordered officials to expedite the filing of the case and the arrest of the executives and officials of Aman Futures, Mendez said.
among the executives and directors of the firm facing arrest are Amalilio, Fernando "Nonoy" Luna, Lelian Lim Gan, Edward L. Lim, William L. Fuentes, Naezelle M. Rodriguez and Lurix Lopez.
No sacred cows
The NBI deputy director said Aquino also ordered a deeper probe of other people involved in the scam. "The president's specific instruction was to fast-track the investigation, no sacred cows," Mendez said.
He said the instruction was made through Justice Secretary Leila de Lima who was also present at the meeting with the president in the Palace.
Before attending the meeting, De Lima created a panel of prosecutors to help some victims file cases of syndicated estafa, a nonbailable offence, before the end of the year against the operators of Aman Futures.
De Lima said she had ordered a manhunt for the officials of Aman Futures, a Pasay City-based firm.
Among the firm's victims were local politicians, police and military personnel, government workers, market vendors, farmers, drivers, retired employees and overseas Filipino workers. Some victims appear to have taken the law into their hands as they desperately seek to recover their hard-earned money.
Agent of firm killed
An agent of Aman Futures was killed in a Zamboanga del Sur town after he was abducted by unidentified men in Pagadian on Monday.
Anwar Zainal, also the owner of Security Pacific Insurance, a car insurance agency, was found dead on the national highway in Barangay (village) Balucot in Tambulig town around 6am on Tuesday.
In a report to the Zamboanga del Sur police headquarters, Senior Insp. Edgar Hinoctan, chief of the Tambulig police, said Zainal succumbed to a single gunshot wound in the chest.
Co said that based on the last entry on the computers used by Aman Futures, there were at least 360,000 transactions made with the firm. He, however, could not say exactly how many people had been victimised as "some of the victims had multiple transactions."
Co estimates that in his city alone, some 120,000 transactions, from 5,000 pesos to millions of pesos of investment, were made.
Co himself was among those who invested money. "I learned that my political enemies had also invested. I was planning to use the money to support the barangay officials in next year's elections," the mayor said of his 2-million peso investment.
"Now, the money's gone," Co told the Philippine Daily Inquirer by phone.
Aman Futures started operating in Pagadian in March, and by May it was able to lure more residents in investing in the firm. As early as April, Co said he had warned residents to be cautious about investing.
"I told them that the scheme was too good to be true. But still, they took their chances," he said of the thousands of his constituents who fell victim to the scheme run by Aman Futures.In fact, the mayor added, most "investors" earned from the scheme.
"There were at least 200 brand-new cars roaming around the city," he said.
"Who wouldn't be enticed to invest? Just imagine your 10,000 pesos earning 3,500 pesos or your 100,000 pesos earning 25,000 pesos in eight days," he added.
In June, Co said City Hall started going after the firm because it was operating without a permit. "We ordered the police to make arrests, but nothing happened," he said, adding that most police personnel had also invested in the firm.
This, the mayor said, forced him to issue a temporary permit. "Our dilemma was that if we go after the firm, we would also be going against our constituents," he said.
But in September, the firm started to lose its magic, with people complaining about bouncing checks. On September 27, Aman Future's office closed down and its personnel, led by Luna, were nowhere to be found.
De Lima said she would issue a department order creating a panel of prosecutors to help investigate the pyramid scam. "As much as possible we want the cases filed before the end of the year," the justice secretary said.
General Claro Arellano said 10 to 12 prosecutors would help the victims file syndicated estafa cases against Aman Futures officials.
Even if these officials have fled the country, the long arm of the law can still reach them because the government will invoke bilateral agreements like the Mutual Legal Assistance Treaty with countries where they have sought refuge, according to De Lima," she said.
De Lima also said the justice department was investigating reports that some local officials had also invested in Aman Futures and probably used public funds.
She said that initially, the NBI had a hard time filing cases against Aman Futures because complainants hesitated in doing so for fear that they would be unable to recoup their investments.
But she said she did not think the victims would be able to recoup their investments if they did not file charges because the officials of the investment firm had already gone into hiding and closed down accounts.
Aman Futures was able to lure investors by offering a 30-per cent to 40-per cent return on investment within eight days, and a 50-per cent to 80-per cent profit for 18 to 20 days.
The investment firm would give their investors a postdated check for the entire sum of the investment plus the profit. But the postdated checks started to bounce last month, causing investors to panic and seek out the officials of the firm.
Sergio Osme?a III, chairman of the Senate banks and financial institutions committee, said the higher the return on investment, the higher the risk. "That should already alert you that what is being offered is a scam," he said .
The Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas (BSP) or the central bank has warned the public against investment schemes that offer above-market interest rates, saying promises of very high returns are usually associated with fraud.
"Don't be enticed by investment schemes that promise very high returns. If it sounds too good to be true, it is likely a scam and you can end up losing even your principal," BSP Deputy Governor Nestor Espenilla Jr. told the Inquirer.
With reports from Tarra Quismundo, Cathy C. Yamsuan and Michelle V. Remo