MANILA, Philippines – Two officials of the Bureau of Customs in Zamboanga City were suspended over the smuggle of 23,000 sacks of rice which have gone missing, a controversy that "visibly upset" President Rodrigo Duterte.
Presidential Spokesman Harry Roque said those suspended were Zamboanga Customs District Collector Lyceo Martinez and Customs Police District Commander Felimeno Salazar during a press conference on Thursday, October 4.
The two were placed under "administrative relief" in order to prevent them from influencing the investigation into the incident, said Roque. In a message to Rappler, the spokesman said he meant the officials were suspended, not fired.
The case of 23,015 smuggled rice that had gone missing in Zamboanga City angered Duterte, according to Roque, quoting Executive Secretary Salvador Medialdea.
Duterte ordered the National Food Authority and Bureau of Customs to investigate the anomaly.
"I got a text from the Executive Secretary asking me to inform the nation that the President was visibly upset with the missing 23,015 sacks of apprehended smuggled rice in Zamboanga City," said Roque.
"The Executive Secretary has asked me to tell the nation that the President has ordered an immediate and thorough investigation into this incident and that instructions were given for both the NFA OIC and Customs Commissioner to immediately place on preventive suspension inviduals who may be part of this scheme," he added.
Customs chief Isidro Lapeña reported to Malacañang that 16,000 sacks out of the 23,015 have already been recovered by authorities.
On October 1, Monday, 5,000 was recovered from the Basulta Traders Corporation warehouse. The day after, 3,000 sacks were recovered followed by another 8,000.
Law enforcers are still searching for the remaining 7,015 sacks.
Meanwhile, Zamboanga City Coast Guard Station chief Lieutenant Commander Noriel Ramos said it was indeed his unit which apprehended the rice shipment on September 22 but had turned these over to the customs personnel on the same day.
Ramos said a joint inventory of the apprehended smuggled rice was conducted in the presence of Customs representative Vicente Eduardo Torres who officially signed the turnover papers.
“The disposition of apprehended smuggled rice is not within our jurisdiction so we have to officially turn it over to the Bureau of Customs... We have no more jurisdiction whatever happens to it in transit to their storage area,” Ramos said. – with reports from Richard Falcatan/Rappler.com
Pia Ranada covers the Office of the President and Bangsamoro regional issues for Rappler. While helping out with desk duties, she also watches the environment sector and the local government of Quezon City. For tips or story suggestions, you can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.