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Customs, PDEA failed to detect P1-B shabu in Manila port

MANILA, Philippines – The Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency (PDEA) and the Bureau of Customs (BOC) allowed the entry of a supposed shipment of tapioca starch in January which turned out to be packed with illegal drugs worth P1 billion.

The shipment arrived at the Manila International Container Port  (MICP) on January 27 from Cambodia, labeled as tapioca starch. Because it was not claimed for 3 months, the BOC had to get rid of it. They decided to put it up for auction, but first decided to examine its contents.

On March 7, according to documents obtained by Rappler, the PDEA tested the shipment through its own crime lab, acquiring 40 samples of "white powdery substance." The tests turned out negative for illegal drugs.

NO DRUGS FOUND. The PDEA fails to find illegal drugs inside a shipment packed with shabu worth P1 billion. Sourced photo

NO DRUGS FOUND. The PDEA fails to find illegal drugs inside a shipment packed with shabu worth P1 billion.

Sourced photo

On March 11, PDEA National Capital Region chief Director III Joel Plaza reported to the BOC that the samples “do not contain any dangerous drugs, controlled precursors, and essential chemicals.”

A month later, on April 22, the BOC placed the shipment for auction.

The shipment was bought by Malabon-based Goldwin Commercial Warehouse.

Another month later, on May 24, the PDEA, acting on a supposed lead, raided the warehouse where they found illegal drugs. (READ: P1 billion worth of shabu seized in Malabon warehouse)

The BOC backed up PDEA's story. “The Customs and PDEA jointly inspected the three containers and were able to verify that the shipment indeed contain illegal drugs,” the BOC said in a statement on May 25.

Customs said they had advance information that the shipment contained illegal drugs, based on intelligence from PDEA. Both agencies explained that they decided to pursue the auction as a trap for drug smugglers.

But the PDEA documents contradict the claim that both agencies were privy to the existence of illegal drugs in the shipment. 

 

 

CLEARED. PDEA says the shipment 'do not contain any dangerous drugs, controlled precursors, and essential chemicals'. Sourced photo

CLEARED. PDEA says the shipment 'do not contain any dangerous drugs, controlled precursors, and essential chemicals'.

Sourced photo

So why did the agencies miss the drugs?

According to PDEA laboratory director and spokesman Derrick Carreon, they first tested the tapioca starch in sacks. The illegal drugs were found in the hollow aluminum pallets which stacked up the sacks.

“The samples came from the packages, not the pallets, so based on the chemistry report, it would indicate that the drugs were hidden in the pallets, not in the package. That’s why the results were starch,” Carreon said.

He added: “What can we do? We are a science-based office. The laboratory can only be good as the samples given to us.”

'Details don't add up'

DRUGS INSIDE. PDEA and BOC find the illegal drugs inside the aluminum bars that came with the tapioca starch. BOC photo

DRUGS INSIDE. PDEA and BOC find the illegal drugs inside the aluminum bars that came with the tapioca starch.

BOC photo

This has led Senator Panfilo Lacson to blast the BOC and PDEA in a privilege speech on Wednesday, May 29, saying that the details the two agencies disclosed “do not seem to add up.” (READ: Lacson: Customs 'still one hell of a mess' despite anti-corruption drive)

"Did Customs and PDEA officials really expect the owners of this shipment to actually participate in the said public auction knowing fully well that forfeited and seized commodities undergo 100% physical examination prior to disposition?" Lacson said.

Ideally, the BOC should have spotted the illegal drugs through their X-ray equipment. According to former X-ray chief Lourdes Mangaoang in a September 2018 Senate probe, the BOC automatically has to physically examine hollow items they find in their scans, such as the hollow aluminum bars in this shipment.

Lacson questioned why the PDEA and BOC resorted to auctioning off the shipment as a trap if they had known that they were illegal drugs, given that the Customs Modernization and Tariff Act prohibited the auctioning of seized illegal goods.

The PDEA has since cleared Goldwin Commercial Warehouse of involvement in illegal drugs, leaving them without any arrest. (READ: How P6.8-B 'shabu' slipped past PNP, PDEA, Customs)

Lacson said the company called authorities for help after they cleaned the aluminum bars and found illegal drugs inside. This was what happened, the senator said, instead of the law enforcement agencies supposedly raiding the warehouse because of a lead.

Kahit paikut-ikutin nila ang kwento, napakalabo pa rin ng bersyon ng Bureau of Customs at PDEA ukol sa mga pangyayari (No matter how they spin the story, the version of the Bureau of Customs and the PDEA is still hazy),” Lacson said. – Rappler.com

Rambo Talabong

Rambo Talabong covers security, crime, and the city of Manila for Rappler. He was chosen as a Jaime V. Ongpin Fellow in 2019 for his reporting on President Rodrigo Duterte’s war on drugs.

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