Religious seminar a cover for drug mules

International drug syndicates use invitations to religious seminars abroad as covers to facilitate the trips of drug mules bound for Europe via Hong Kong, according to the National Bureau of Investigation.

The modus operandi was discovered by the NBI after a man and two women, accompanied by a certain Michael Vinco who claimed he was a pastor from Bacolod City, were stopped from boarding a plane for Hong Kong due to suspicious statements about their trip.

The suspects' "inconsistent answers to immigration officers' questions about a religious seminar they were supposed to attend led to their detention by immigration officers," according to NBI agent Fatima Walug.

When interrogated, the three travellers allegedly admitted they were drug mules, or persons contracted to carry packets of drugs for a syndicate. Walug said the three said they were recruited to be drug carriers by a certain Renalyn Morales Bactol, who is based in Brazil and married to a Nigerian. They also said that Vinco, the one who presented himself as a pastor, had acted as the link between them and Bactol. His job was to see that they got on the plane.

Walug said the victims admitted they were on their way to Brazil via Hong Kong to pick up a "drug package" then bring it back to Hong Kong.

In their statements, the three said Bactol promised them US$5,000 (about S$6,720) for every successful round trip delivery of illegal drugs.

According to Walug, the three suspects were convinced by Bactol to be drug carriers, telling them she herself has been a drug mule for more than six years and has never been arrested. To further convince the suspects, Bactol reportedly said her own daughter also became a drug carrier and was also not detected.

Based on their statements, the plan was for the three suspects to meet a certain Allam, a Filipino in Hong Kong, who would give them further instructions before they proceed to Brazil. Walug said the three knew they would be carrying illegal drugs "but took the risk because of the big cash offered to them."

Based on their testimonies, the NBI said it would file charges against Vinco, Bactol and Allam for the involvement in a large-scale illegal syndicate in human trafficking-a nonbailable case. The NBI said Bactol reportedly came back to the Philippines to recruit drug carriers at the height of the Mary Jane Veloso case.

Veloso, a 30-year-old single mother, was arrested and convicted of trafficking heroin into Indonesia in October 2010. She was scheduled for execution by firing squad on April 29 but was given a last-minute reprieve to allow her to testify against her recruiters. The case drew big attention here and abroad. President Aquino himself had intervened in her behalf.

Veloso claimed she did not know the bag she was asked to carry contained illegal drugs.

The surrender of her recruiters, Maria Kristina Sergio and Julius Lacanilao, bolstered the government's claim that Veloso's presence was needed to uncover the bigger syndicate involved in her case. Charges of human trafficking and fraud have been filed against the recruiters.

Justice Secretary Leila de Lima said Sergio admitted she worked for an international drug ring. This could lead to the grant of permanent clemency to Veloso, who remains on death row in Indonesia.