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MANILA, Philippines—Over a year since he lost in the senatorial race, former Muntinlupa Rep. Rozzano Rufino “Ruffy” Biazon was no longer expecting any appointment. He was already making plans for his wedding anniversary celebration when his phone rang on August 11. President Benigno Aquino III was on the line, offering him to head the Bureau of Customs.
“Medyo nabigla ako kasi (I was suprised because) I wasn’t expecting it. In fact, what I was in a way requesting for was another position so when he told me that this was the position he was offering me, medyo nabigla rin ako. Hindi pumasok sa isip ko ang posisyon na iyon.” (That position never crossed my mind.)
While Biazon did not see the offer coming, reports of a change in leadership at the bureau have been circulating since May. Outgoing Customs Commissioner Angelito Alvarez came under fire for several controversies. Aquino appointed Alvarez in July 2010, a decision that drew flak because of an alleged golf cheating scandal involving the former president of forwarding company Air 21. Critics said the incident cast doubt on Alvarez’s integrity.
The biggest issue hounding Alvarez is the disappearance of 1,910 container vans. The vans were en route from ports in Manila to the Port of Batangas from January to May 2011 but never reached their destination. They were reportedly carrying high-duty goods, resulting in a loss of about P230 million in government revenues.
Some lawmakers called for the head of Alvarez but the commissioner maintained it was he who discovered and reported the anomaly. He blamed the ouster calls on a smear campaign that smugglers allegedly orchestrated against him.
The House minority criticized Malacañang for its silence on the issue. Little did they know, the president already had a man in mind to replace Alvarez.
But Biazon wanted to know, “Why me?”
Outsider but not alien
A medical technology graduate from the University of Santo Tomas, Biazon dreamed of being a doctor but ended up doing rounds in government. After graduating in 1991, he became director of the Video Regulatory Board, now known as the Optical Media Board. A year later, he began working as the chief of staff of his father, then senator and former Armed Forces chief Rodolfo Biazon. He later served as the chief legislative officer of Sen. Sergio “Serge” Osmeña III from 1995 to 1997.
After working for two senators, Biazon tried his own hand in politics, completing three terms as congressman of Muntinlupa. He became vice chairman of various House committees, including national defense and security, and appropriations. In 2004, he joined the Liberal Party. He ran in the LP’s senatorial ticket in 2010 but finished 14th in the race with 8,626,514 votes.
Biazon’s loss gave him time to focus on his personal life after an 18-year stint in the legislature. “So I spent it with the family, catching up on fathering and being a husband,” he said. Biazon is married to Catherine Mary “Trina” Reyes-Biazon. They have four sons.
The President’s call, however, signalled the start of his government comeback, this time to the executive branch.
Aside from shifting from legislation to law enforcement, Biazon faces the challenge of leading what is considered as one of the most corrupt agencies. At 42, he also becomes one of the youngest commissioners of the government’s second largest income generating body.
The BOC is in charge of assessing and collecting duties and taxes on imports, and preventing smuggling. Yet, it has become notorious for inefficiency, red tape, and corruption, with some employees colluding with smugglers and several businessmen bribing their way through the process.
Biazon is also the first politician to head the bureau in decades, with his immediate predecessors hailing from the agency or the private sector. Alvarez (2010-2011) and Alberto Lina (2005) were from business while Napoleon Morales (2006-2010) and George Jereos (2004-2005) held posts in the BOC prior to being commissioner.
Biazon told Rappler he had many apprehensions about the job as he was initially eyeing a position in the Defense or Tourism departments.
When DOT Secretary Alberto Lim resigned on August 12 or just a day after the offer was made, he even tried to persuade the president to consider him for that post instead but Aquino already made up his mind.
“His answer to me was that we need somebody to tackle the old issues from a new perspective. He said, ‘I need somebody there that I am fully aware of the competencies and has my trust.’”
Aquino and Biazon are partymates and former colleagues in Congress but the latter denies their friendship was the reason for his appointment. “I’m not within his inner circle that’s why I really was humbled and taken aback when he picked me for this position.”
Biazon admits he is an outsider in the agency but sees this as an asset.
“I think there are times really that in order to solve a problem, you need to step out, step back and look at the problem from outside. You think out of the box,” said Biazon. “I think it’s positive for me that I’m not from the bureaucracy. Wala akong koneksyon doon. Walang magsasabi na, “Commissioner, noong tayo-tayo ang magkasama sa baba, ganito tayo.” (I have no connections there. No one will say, ‘Commissioner, when we were starting out, we were this way.’)
The incoming BOC chief also believes his experience as a legislator will be useful in his new job. He said the oversight function he exercised will help him supervise his deputies while the budget process in Congress will come in handy in managing the bureau’s resources. “So it’s something that is not totally alien to me.”
Nice guy, tough job
Biazon got two directives from the president: tighten law enforcement and improve the monitoring of shenanigans.
“Simple ang sabi niya eh, ‘Kung walang nagrereklamo, ibig sabihin maluwag.‘Pag may magrereklamo, it means you’re doing your job.’ So in a way, that’s his general direction, siguro ‘pag naramdaman niyang parang wala namang nagrereklamo dito ah, ibig sabihin business as usual.” (His instruction was simple, ‘If no one complains, it means the enforcement is lax. When someone complains, it means you’re doing your job.’ So if he feels that no one is complaining, that means it’s business as usual.)
Aquino’s marching orders to Biazon aim to address smuggling, a problem that has been weighing down Customs for decades.
The Federation of Philippine Industries estimates that government loses P127 billion a year due to smuggling, mostly technical smuggling.
Technical smuggling involves the misdeclaration, undervaluation and misclassification of goods. It is more common than outright smuggling, where goods are brought into the country without going through Customs.
FPI Chairman Jesus Arranza illustrated the effect of smuggling on local business. “If you talk of textile milling, before in 1992, we had 1,500,000 spindles. Each spindle employs 35 people on a 24-hour shift. In 2005, we had only 200,000 spindles. Just imagine how the industry shrank.”
“If you talk of tire manufacturing, before, we had six tire manufacturers. Now, we have only one. You don’t need a rocket scientist to determine if they were adversely affected by that.”
A techie, Biazon plans to maximize the use of technology in the anti-smuggling campaign. “What I’m looking at in introducing technology is how you can physically monitor the movements of the goods because the documentation is already automated but smuggling happens because the goods physically disappear. So I’m looking at technology to plug that loophole.”
Asked if he will be able to crack the whip on employees colluding with smugglers, Biazon said there is more to him than his “nice guy” image.
‘Beware the underworld’
Former Customs commissioner Guillermo Parayno Jr. said Biazon will have to work hard to learn the basics. “Customs work is a very technical job: tariffs, customs, systems, procedures. It’s a very technical work and you need time.”
Parayno held the post for six years during the Ramos administration, one of the longest terms for a Customs chief. (Link to sidebar) He is credited for implementing reform programs and a major IT system for customs processing. Prior to being BOC chief, he served as special assistant to the commissioner and chief of intelligence.
“Ruffy needs help. Smugglers will run circles around him,” he said. “Kawawa siya because it’s a completely new world for Ruffy Biazon and I’m saying, be fair with him. Let’s help him and to my mind, the best way to help him is to prepare him for the job.”
Parayno added that Biazon must gain an understanding of how crimes happen. “This is a business by the underworld and it’s happening before, happening now and will continue to happen. For as long as there is money to be made, it will continue and what you can only do is to minimize it, reduce it to the smallest level.”
Biazon conceded that he has a lot to learn but he plans to go around ports in the country to know processes firsthand.
Other than learning the basics, Parayno and Arranza stressed that Biazon must avoid the mistake of his predecessor. The two said that Alvarez initially did not make the necessary changes in key positions in the bureau. “He had the desire to help but I think he didn’t want to rock the boat,” said Arranza.
“The deputies, the intelligence, those are the critical posts. Deputy for IT, deputy for enforcement, the Customs police force, which is part of intelligence. ‘Pag nagkamali ka diyan, siyempre (If you make the wrong choice, of course) you will rely on them but if they are giving you wrong feedback, how will you know? You cannot check everyone,” said Arranza.
Arranza recommended that the Department of Finance create an independent team to evaluate the performance of BOC employees. “Not unless people who made money in Customs are punished, we can never solve smuggling. It will always be there. As the saying goes, ‘They always follow the old Customs and tradition.”
The newcomer said he is up for the challenge of breaking the culture of corruption.
Biazon said, “It’s a difficult job. The public I’m sure will have its measure of cynicism as I assume office and I accept that. It’s part of the game and it’s also one of the things that will drive me to do my job …. I’m cautiously optimistic, hoping for the best.”