Lacson: Customs 'still one hell of a mess' despite Duterte's anti-corruption drive

MANILA, Philippines – Despite the Duterte administration's vaunted fight against corruption, the Bureau of Customs (BOC) still remained "one hell of a mess" as grease money continued to oil massive drug smuggling operations, Senator Panfilo Lacson said in a privilege speech on Wednesday, May 29.

"We spend a great deal of taxpayers’ money for an automated processing system, X-ray scanners, even for brokers’ accreditation, not to mention fairly high salaries for seasoned military men at the helm of the Bureau of Customs. But at the end of the day – all our efforts be damned – we are still one hell of a mess," Lacson said in his 25-minute speech.

He said that based on the information that he had received, Customs chief Rey Leonardo Guerrero remained "untainted by corruption" but the so-called "tara" system or bribery in the BOC continued to thrive under his nose, as shown by the discovery of huge illegal drug shipments in the country.

Under the tara system, smugglers bribe Customs employees and officials to clear illegal shipments. Lacson exposed this in August 2017, and even provided a list of people allegedly involved in that system. (FULL TEXT: 'Kita kita sa Customs)

'Ingenious schemes'

The senator said the “ingenious schemes” of drug smuggling syndicates that led to the replacement of  Nicanor Faeldon and Isidro Lapeña as Customs chiefs persisted under the new leadership.

The senator cited several instances, the latest on May 24, when the BOC and the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency (PDEA) reported the seizure of shabu (methamphetamine) worth P1 billion inside aluminum pallets in a Malabon warehouse.

Lacson revealed that the illegal drugs came from a shipment that the BOC, along with PDEA, had earlier supposedly found to contain drugs but decided to dispose of through an auction, after the consignee failed to to file an import entry with Customs.  The agencies had claimed that this was supposedly done to bait the owner of the shipment.

The agencies then reported that the winning bidder reportedly found traces of illegal drugs while cleaning the container, and reported it to authorities.

But Lacson noted that in the report of PDEA Regional Director III Joel B. Plaza submitted 11 days before the seizure in the Malabon warehouse, the BOC cleared the shipment of "dangerous drugs, controlled precursors, and essential chemicals." The report also said the shipment had to be auctioned off since it was "perishable by nature."

“It does not take much to figure out the holes in the plot that some not-so-smart characters in these agencies tried to fabricate but failed miserably. Simply put, this is a case of dishonesty with the intention of misleading the public,” Lacson said.

He also cited the case of Chinese Zhijian Xu, also known as Jacky Co – a wanted person in China – who was allegedly involved in the illegal drug trade and kidnap-for-ransom operations in the Philippines, who managed to leave the country.

How much tara?

Lacson said while he believed that Guerrero was not part of the tara system, based on information he received, the Office of the Commissioner still got "an average of P5,000 per container plus 10% of the collections of each section/office directly under OCOM."

Lacson alleged that the BOC Intelligence Group received P3,000 each container, the Law Enforcement Group received P1,000 to P2,000, the Risk Management Office received P3,000, and the Important and Assessment Service receives P2,000 to P3,000.

The Manila International Container Port (MICP) and the Port of Manila district offices, meanwhile, allegedly received P3,000 per container, with alert orders supposedly fetching as high as P50,000. Lacson estimated that 2,000 to 7,000 containers pass through the ports every week.

“Whoever gets the tara money in his office or the Office of the Commissioner, I will leave it to General Guerrero to investigate and find out,” Lacson said.

Lacson first placed the spotlight on BOC corruption  in 2017, after authorities found P6.4 billion worth of shabu in a Valenzuela warehouse. Multiple congressional hearings were conducted to get to the bottom of the shipment, leading to multiple cases filed against civilians and Customs employees and officials.

The same happened for the billions worth of illegal drugs found abandoned at the MICP in August 2018.

Why promote sacked official?

Lacson lamented that sacked MICP district collector Vener Baquiran was not just reappointed to the BOC, he was even promoted as deputy commissioner.

"As if adding insult to injury, the BOC faces another question in leadership and management with the appointment of relieved MICP Collector Vener Baquiran to an even higher post as Customs Deputy Commissioner," he said.

He noted that Baquiran was in the list of "identified bagmen in the long list of BOC personnel receiving payola/tara from big players inside the Bureau" which he had exposed in 2017.

Lacson added that Baquiran's name resurfaced during the congressional inquiries on the shabu shipment in magnetic lifters in 2018.

“How can the Bureau thoroughly and sincerely address the country’s drug problem if instead of punishing the corrupt or incompetent, or both, this administration is even rewarding these people with other positions in government? Sadly, what they cannot completely throw away, they tend to recycle. This time, at the expense of BOC’s credibility and to the detriment of the public,” Lacson said.

He added, "When we tolerate corruption and its perpetrators in the institution, reward incompetence rather than weed out the roots that breed it; the public will start to believe it is a given and Customs officials will start to believe it is a routine." (LIST: No to corruption? Duterte's controversial reappointees)

Baquiran was among the personalities that a Department of Justice panel had endorsed to the Office of the Ombudsman for preliminary investigation in relation to the huge shabu shipment at the MICP, concealed in magnetic lifters. (TIMELINE: The search for P11-B shabu 'smuggled' into PH

Challenge to Guerrero

Lacson challenged Guerrero to turn the BOC into an agency that mirrors the latter's untainted integrity.

"To uphold your strong integrity and moral principles is a test of your character. The test of your leadership, on the other hand, is how your integrity and principles resound in the halls of your office and influence the actions and behavior of your subalterns. To fail in one is to fail in both," he said, addressing Guerrero. 

"The Filipino people demand much from your leadership. While I continue to vouch for your character as it remains unquestionable, some of your people are afflicted with severely debilitated credibility, which may eventually reflect on you and the institution that you lead and represent" he added. – 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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