Customs, corruption: A hopeless case?
MANILA, Philippines - Thank God it's Friday.
Any Bureau of Customs employee in Manila will tell you that "TGIF" rings loud and true in their office. By late afternoon on Fridays, the compound is abuzz with activity, employees and hangers-on fill the corridors and offices, there's food, laughter and chatter. Most of all, there's money.
It's "payday" every Friday at the Customs, when tainted money in envelopes are distributed to Customs employees and officials. “Everybody’s happy,” as money changes hands, a Customs insider told Rappler.
One could refuse the loot, but it will certainly find its way to another man’s pocket. The amount varies depending on one's position — anywhere from P5,000 to millions of pesos. Even an employee "whose only task is to open the door for me gets a cut," he adds.
He thought he could resist it, but he found out later how futile a "no-take policy" is at the Customs. Those who try to keep their noses clean or pry open the lid, face the risk of isolation or elimination, he added.
One can only mitigate the greed, he says, but only to a certain extent. In the BOC, money rules that even the well-intentioned succumbs to temptation.
How do you then solve a problem like the Customs?
Patience for Biazon, none for Alvarez
In his first statement upon assuming the BOC portfolio in September 2011, Customs Commissioner Rozzano Rufino “Ruffy” Biazon revealed he was advised by friends and colleagues against accepting the job as “the agency is hopeless.”
But he said he saw it as a challenge to reform the agency that has dislodged the Department of Public Works and Highways as the most corrupt Philippine office, not only in perception but in actual practice.
Today, Biazon is implicitly raising the white flag, having failed to stop corruption and collect proper taxes after almost two years in office.
Biazon quickly offered to resign minutes after President Benigno Aquino III finished his 4th State of the Nation Address on July 22, where the BOC figured prominently in his shame list. “I offered my resignation to the President to give way to new leadership, saying that I am well aware that my stay in the post is only based on his confidence,” Biazon said on Twitter.
(Two of Biazon's other deputies, Danilo Lim and Juan Lorenzo Tañada have also tendered their resignation.)
The President’s shaming and scolding of the BOC may have surprised Biazon. After all, he has kept his post despite failing to meet yearly and monthly revenue targets—a luxury that his predecessor, Angelito Alvarez, did not have. Alvarez was kicked out by the President after only 14 months in office.
Alvarez had to fend off rumors almost every month that he was on his way out. Talks about Biazon’s ouster, on the other hand, were intermittent, largely spread by so-called reporters who were affected by the Custom chief's move to weed out bogus journalists engaged in influence-peddling in the BOC.
It was clear that Biazon, a losing senatorial bet and party mate of the President, enjoyed Aquino’s trust and confidence. Some doubt was cast during the President's SONA, however, but in Biazon's words, the President later told him, “Ruffy, we both know the difficulties in the agency you are trying to reform. My confidence in you remains the same."
A day after the SONA, a somber Biazon offered the ultimate solution for the BOC: abolish the entire Customs bureaucracy and start from scratch. “I believe that the extent of the problem is such that sometimes, we need to consider drastic solutions,” Biazon said in a press conference.
It is an admission that despite his attempts, corruption will persist, given the way things are at the BOC.
When Alvarez was BOC chief, he pushed for electronic transactions to curb human intervention that has been identified as one of the factors contributing to corruption. He also initiated the filing of weekly cases against smugglers, brokers and importers, including big oil players supposedly engaged in technical smuggling.
Despite these efforts, Aquino however was not satisfied with the reforms, and got more frustrated when BOC collections started falling.
But just before he was shown the door, Alvarez said he had uncovered a scam involving 3,600 containers that left Manila en route to Batangas port but could no longer be traced.
When he accepted the BOC post, Biazon said he was aware of the challenges ahead, saying these were meant “to be overcome, not avoided.” He spoke of 9 Cs: change, closing loopholes, continuity, consultation, computerization, cooperation, clampdown, cheerleader and collection—as the cornerstone of his administration.
But as most slogans go, they were better heard than implemented.
Reporters as power brokers
One of Biazon’s initial acts was to curtail the number of reporters covering the BOC. At the time, the number of supposed reporters covering the BOC, considered a minor beat in legitimate news organizations, had grown to more than a hundred.
Informed that a media group had become a powerful bloc in the agency, flaunting its influence and acting as protectors of smugglers, he launched a crackdown on bogus or fake reporters. Biazon required all reporters to secure proof that their news organization exists, and not engaged in fly-by-night operations. He blocked the access of anyone who did not acquire accreditation.
This has earned him a pack of media critics affected by the stricter screening of reporters.
At the same time, Biazon reshuffled his men several times in the hope of finding the right combination and chemistry. He also aped Alvarez’s style of filing weekly cases against smugglers.
But the magic formula continued to elude him.
Since September 2011 (when Biazon took over), the BOC never met its monthly targets — except in January 2013, when the agency breached its goal for that month by P200 million.
For fiscal year 2012, the BOC failed to reach its revenue goal by P59 billion. Despite the surplus of P200 million in collection by the start of the year, the BOC is already short by P13.3 billion, as of June 2013.
On several occasions, Biazon had offered various explanations for not meeting the targets. These included smuggling; low collection during lean months; removal of tariffs in some products due to the country’s commitment to free trade agreements; strong peso; business slowdown in other countries; and unrealistic targets imposed by the Department of Finance.
In 2012, Biazon asked the DOF to lower the imposed target but the DOF did not budge. For 2013, the DOF imposed a P397 billion target—a goal which, Biazon felt, was too high. He asked that it be lowered to P340 billion.
But the DOF stuck to its own figure. "This (P397 billion) shall be the amount which we will monitor collection performance,” Finance Secretary Cesar Purisima told Biazon in a memorandum.
Given the trend in the past 5 months, the BOC is set for another revenue shortfall for the year.
On the way out?
In his press conference Tuesday, July 23, Biazon reiterated that what the BOC needed is an overhaul, asking for the passage of the Customs Modernization Bill that could lead to the abolition of the present bureau and the creation of a new one.
In previous interviews, Biazon broached the drastic measure, citing the case of Peru which abolished its customs bureau and created a new one with new employees. He said removing one or two corrupt Customs employees will not solve the problem.
Essentially, the ultimate solution is to start from scratch. “Dito kung lalaliman natin ang pag-iisip natin tungkol sa reform sa bureau, we do not stop at just removing people because what is really the problem? It’s because of a system that allows it to happen." (When we think hard about reform in the bureau, we do not stop at just removing people because what is really the problem? It’s because of a system that allows it to happen.)
“Sometimes sinasabi ng iba na wala sa sistema yan, nasa tao yan pero kung minsan nasa sistema rin, di lang sa tao kasi nahahayaan o nagkakaroon ng pagkakataon yung tao na gawin yung gusto nyang gawin dahil yung sistema,” Biazon said. (Sometimes others say it has nothing to do with the system but the person. But sometimes it's also because of the system and not just the person, because the system allows him to, or gives him the opportunity to do what he wants.)
In the meantime, Biazon hinted of a “two- pronged drastic move…an ongoing plan being hatched by the BOC, DOF, up to the Office of the President. That is something we cannot talk in detail (yet).”
Does this include a graceful exit? His parting statement reveals a clue.
Expressing his gratitude to the President, Biazon said: “..to those who have expressed their support for me, I thank you very much but I hope you would not take it against me if sometime in the near future I would hang up the gloves because sometimes you begin to think if this is all worth it. Kung wala man lang kahihinatnan (If this will all amount to nothing) why stay on?”
Hardly the words of someone willing to continue the fight. - Rappler.com