Empty or shabu-packed? X-ray scans of magnetic lifters revealed

MANILA, Philippines – The House committee on dangerous drugs on Thursday, August 30 revealed X-ray scans of the 4 magnetic lifters found in Cavite that allegedly contained one ton of shabu (methamphetamine) worth P6.8 billion.

Marikina 2nd District Representative Miro Quimbo shared during the probe into the missing shabu shipment that he acquired colored scans of magnetic lifters, which he said pointed to the lifters being packed with shabu before their discovery.

"They clearly show that it is hollow, and that there are contents hidden inside packed neatly, cleanly," Quimbo said before Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency (PDEA) and Bureau of Customs (BOC) top officials.

"We cannot have any other conclusion [other than] 'yung apat na magnetic lifters na 'yun, tulad ng sinabi ni General Aaquino, ay punong puno ng shabu (those 4 magnetic lifters, just as General Aquino said, were packed with shabu)," Quimbo said. (READ: PDEA chief insists magnetic lifters in Cavite contained shabu)

Referring to the photo placed above, Quimbo said that the brown coloration near the bottom of the lifters point to them containing illegal drugs.

He said that the scans are available to the BOC and should have been enough for it to halt the magnetic lifter shipment in July at the Manila International Container Terminal.

WHAT WAS PUBLISHED. This photo is what the Bureau of Customs shared in its press briefing at the beginning of the controversy. Courtesy of House Committee on Dangerous Drugs

WHAT WAS PUBLISHED. This photo is what the Bureau of Customs shared in its press briefing at the beginning of the controversy.

Courtesy of House Committee on Dangerous Drugs

Two weeks ago, BOC presented the black-and-white photo above to reporters just days after the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency (PDEA) discovered the lifters already empty in a General Mariano Alvarez warehouse in Cavite.

"As shown in the [photo], these are, in fact, magnetic lifters without any intelligence received that there is anything that inside these magnetic lifters, it would be impossible for us to determine what the contents inside really are," Customs spokesman Erastus Austria said in their briefing on August 11. (READ: How P6.8-B 'shabu' slipped past PNP, PDEA, Customs)

BOC's explanation: It took the Bureau of Customs two X-ray inspectors and their Customs X-ray chief, Zsae de Guzman, to insist before lawmakers that the colored scan does not point to the lifters containing shabu.

The second X-ray inspector to explain, John Mar Morales, said that the bits of brown near the bottom of the lifters are empty as its color is the same as the empty space in the entire scan.

"'Yung makapal na portion, namumuti na siya eh, ito makapal (The thick portion shows white)," Morales said, pointing to the upper portion of the whitened silhohuettes of the lifters after the scan was projected for all the House committee to see.

SCANS QUESTIONED. Bureau of Customs X-ray chief Zsae de Guzman (R) explains their scans before the House dangerous drugs committee as X-ray inspector John Mar Morales stands aside. Photo by Rambo Talabong/Rappler

SCANS QUESTIONED. Bureau of Customs X-ray chief Zsae de Guzman (R) explains their scans before the House dangerous drugs committee as X-ray inspector John Mar Morales stands aside.

Photo by Rambo Talabong/Rappler

Morales said that if the lifters contained anything, the light brown coloration would be darker—deeper than the brown registered by the space inside the shipment.

According to De Guzman, the colored image Quimbo shared was called a pseudo-color scan, which she said gives "different effects" on the image. (READ: Customs X-ray machines can't track shabu wrapped in lead, foil, plastic)

She did not expound on these effects, but she said that the colored scan was "unauthorized" and could easily be evaluated with "malice" despite them having other scans that pointed to the lifters as empty.

Why the shipment was cleared by Customs: De Guzman flashed a "negative" or "grey" scan which just outlined the lifters' shape, then shaded their top portions.

USUAL SETTING. This is what the X-ray scan using the usual setting of Customs inspectors. Courtesy of House Committee on Dangerous Drugs

USUAL SETTING. This is what the X-ray scan using the usual setting of Customs inspectors.

Courtesy of House Committee on Dangerous Drugs

De Guzman explained that each X-ray inspector uses a different setting for scanning shipments.

It could be in the pseudo-color setting which produced the image Quimbo showed, or in the negative.

The X-ray chief said that X-ray inspectors use whatever setting is "friendly to their eyes." She added that the most used setting by Customs scanners was the colorless negative scan.

De Guzman then defended her inspectors as only doing their jobs of letting the lifters pass, because as she said, they only countercheck what was declared to them—in this case, the magnetic lifters—with the scans.

"Based on the declaration, it was a scrap lifter, and the image appears to be lifter so he (the X-ray inspector) spammed it as non-suspect," De Guzman said.

Another X-ray expert wanted: The House committee decided to invite in the next hearing a representative of Nuctech, the supplier of BOC for its X-ray machines, to get an "independent assessment" of the images.

The scans, in fact, were retrieved from the X-ray scanners with the help of a Nuctech representative.

The committee remains unconvinced of the explanations of the BOC, with Antipolo Representative Romeo Acop questioning the training capability of X-ray inspectors.

De Guzman, for one, admitted that she has not been trained by the Nuctech, but has been heading the X-ray department for 10 months already.

At the end of the discussion on the projected scans, Committee chairperson Surigao del Norte 2nd District Representatives Ace Barbers said, "something must be done in the [Customs] X-ray department."

"There is a big possibility [of smuggling]. That’s why we are still continuing in this investigation, that's why we’d like to look into that area where we feel that contrabands slipped past through the BOC in that particular department," Barbers 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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