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MANILA, Philippines – Almost a year after onion prices skyrocketed, President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. on Tuesday, July 4, ordered the Department of Justice (DOJ) and the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) to probe an alleged onion cartel and the smuggling and hoarding of other agricultural products.
“I have just given instructions to the DOJ and the NBI to initiate an investigation into the hoarding, smuggling (and) price fixing of agricultural commodities,” said statement from Marcos, who has been serving concurrently as agriculture chief since he assumed office in June 2022.
“And this is stemming from the hearing that we’ve conducted in the House, specifically by Congresswoman Stella Quimbo and the findings that they came up with.”
Quimbo, a Marikina 2nd District Representative, sent the President a memorandum stating the “substantial evidence” uncovering the existence of a cartel.
Last May, Quimbo and Quezon 1st District Representative Mark Enverga concluded after nine House hearings that the surge in onion prices was “artificial.” The lawmakers said this was the handiwork of a cartel in collusion with the Philippine Vegetable Importers, Exporters and Vendors Association (PhilVIEVA).
The House panel found that the alleged cartel monopolized cold storage warehouses to manipulate prices. Quimbo said PhilVIEVA controlled the whole supply chain and pointed at Lilia “Leah” Cruz, dubbed “Onion queen” or “Mrs. Sibuyas” as the cartel’s mastermind.
Marcos said the collusion of stockholders implicated in the cartel was tantamount to “economic sabotage.”
“And that is why we are going to be very, very strict about finding these people and making sure that they are brought to justice,” said Marcos.
Onion prices reached around P700 per kilogram last year. Both the House of Representatives and the Senate conducted separate probes into the issue. The House concluded investigation last May, while the Senate submitted a committee report in February.
In their report, senators said systems in place “to stamp out profiteering, hoarding, smuggling and other nefarious practices seemed to have collapsed.”
A joint effort among the Senate committees on agriculture, food and agrarian reform, justice and human rights, ways and means, and finance are meeting this week to amend Republic Act No. 10845 or the Anti-Agricultural Smuggling Act.
Quimbo said the President’s order was a welcome development and that further steps should benefit local farmers.
“Seeing the executive taking proactive measures brings hope that the cartel’s days will be over, sooner rather than later,” Quimbo said on Tuesday.
“Magsanib puwersa na lahat ng enforcement agencies na mayroong alam sa cartel operations para mas mabilis ang pagkamit ng hustisya at tuluyan nang humina ang pagkilos ng kartel,” added Quimbo.
(All enforcement agencies knowledgeable of the cartel’s operations should come together to achieve justice and obliterate the cartel.)
The lawmaker admitted that cartel enforcement might take some time, so in the meantime, the government can implement immediate steps to bring down prices and give financial support to farmers.
If the government chooses to increase imports to control food inflation, “we need to make sure that local onion farmers benefit entirely from the tariff revenues collected,” said Quimbo.
This was the first time Marcos ordered an action after Congress completed their investigations.
Apart from Cruz, First Lady Liza Araneta Marcos’ brother, Martin Araneta, had been implicated in the onion fiasco.
Journalist Ramon Tulfo alleged collusion between Araneta and Michael Ma, president of China-Philippine United Enterprises, to smuggle onions.
On the other hand, the President’s sister, Senator Imee Marcos, was the one who pushed for a Senate investigation on the issue.
The eldest Marcos sibling had been critical of her brother’s handling of the crisis and said early this year that the latter was “too kind” toward smugglers.
New task force
In a statement released on Tuesday afternoon, the DOJ said the Anti-Agricultural Smuggling Task Force will be created, along with a special team of prosecutors, to focus on the concern.
The justice department said the members will include Chief State Prosecutor Richard Fadullon of the Office of the Prosecutor General and National Bureau of Investigation chief Medardo de Lemos. – with a report from Jairo Bolledo/ Rappler.com