At the Bureau of Customs: How Isidro Lapeña was outplayed

Rambo Talabong

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At the Bureau of Customs: How Isidro Lapeña was outplayed

Ben Nabong

The former Customs chief is, however, 'promoted' amid the biggest drug smuggling controversy to hit the Duterte administration

MANILA, Philippines – Was there or wasn’t there?

Former Bureau of Customs chief Isidro Lapeña’s changing answers to this simple question about the presence of shabu (methamphetamine) in magnetic lifters – brought into the country through the Manila International Container Port (MICP) – has added him to the fallen men of the bureau.

A multibillion-peso shabu smuggling controversy had cast the light on Lapeña and the discovery of 4 empty magnetic lifters that were later found abandoned in a Cavite warehouse.

They are believed to have been packed with up to P11-billion worth of shabu, making it the biggest drug smuggling controversy to hit President Rodrigo Duterte’s administration.

Despite the overwhelming circumstantial evidence, Lapeña had repeatedly denied the possibility of the lifters ever containing drugs. It’s this recycled denial that would eventually lead to his exit as accusations of cover-up piled up rapidly.

He aligned himself with the position of President Rodrigo Duterte, who at the outset of the controversy, dismissed the evidence gathered by the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency (PDEA) as “pure speculation.”

Lapeña had his own reasons to believe that the lifters were empty.

But arguments and evidence had landed right on his lap, pointing to the lifters containing shabu. Lapeña, however, conceded too little and too late.

Keeping destructive information ‘under wraps’

COOPERATION. Prior to finding the 4 magnetic lifters in Cavite, PDEA and Customs officials found two lifters packed with shabu at the Manila International Container Port. Photo by Ben Nabong/Rappler

From the beginning, Lapeña wanted to hold off speculations by limiting information passed on to the media. This was in contrast to Aaron Aquino, the eager chief of PDEA.

When the 4 magnetic lifters were found in a General Mariano Alvarez warehouse in Cavite on August 8, Lapeña was not in favor of holding a press conference to tell the media that at least 1,000 kilograms (kg) of shabu had possibly slipped through their checks.

“It was agreed by the officers on the ground that the matter will be put under wrap[s],” Lapeña said in a press briefing on October 23.

It makes sense for investigation, he said, as they didn’t want suspects to find out that their probers found a trail. But Aquino briefed the media just a day after, right inside the warehouse where the lifters were found.

“We were surprised when DG Aquino held a press conference immediately after, burning the entire follow-up operations and backtracking efforts that [were] agreed upon,” he added.

It was in the same press conference that Aquino fired the first shots at Lapeña in what would later become their word war: “There really are still corrupt employees at Customs.”

Lapeña shot back in a briefing days later, saying it was too early to declare that the lifters contained illegal drugs. He also said that PDEA failed to give them information that would have allowed them to intercept the illegal drugs.

During the BOC’s flag-raising ceremony on Monday, August 13, Lapeña disputed PDEA’s claim, saying that their guess was only as good as theirs: both uncertain.

“I cannot allow our one year of sleepless nights, our efforts during weekends and wee hours to be destroyed because of a mere assumption,” Lapeña said.

He was not ready to concede early on that the lifters contained shabu or any contraband, because it would have been an admission that it slipped past under his leadership, which had only been known back then for intercepting then crushing luxury automobiles.

Ignoring Mangaoang

'WHISTLEBLOWER'. Former Customs X-ray chief Lourdes Mangaoang during the House hearing on shabu-smuggling inside the BOC on October 24, 2018. Photo by Darren Langit/Rappler

On the same Monday he announced the stakes to his personnel, Lapeña got a visit in his office from Lourdes Mangaoang, the former Customs X-ray chief who had worked in the division for 5 years.

Armed with copies of X-ray scans of the magnetic lifters, Mangaoang tried to convince Lapeña that the magnetic lifters contained something that was unknown.

Pinagkatiwalaan ko siya at that time (I trusted him at that time),” said Mangaoang, who has been tagged as a whistleblower who exposed all of Lapeña’s mistakes.

“Sabi ko ‘Sir, klarong-klaro na may laman. May fuzz doon sa images,” she recalled telling Lapeña. (Sir, it’s clear that they contain something. There is a fuzz in the images,)

Lapeña’s reply as Mangaoang recalled was: “Saan mo ito nakuha (Where did you get these)?”

IMAGE ANALYSIS. A pseudocolor scan of the magnetic lifters taken by the Bureau of Customs. Courtesy of House Committee on Dangerous Drugs

It was unclear whether it was the first time that Lapeña saw the images, but they should have been easily accessible to him as the X-ray Inspection Project (XIP) of the BOC is under his direct supervision.

After hearing Mangaoang out, Lapeña consulted with his X-ray division chief Zsae de Guzman, who told him that their X-rays have no way of telling whether drugs were packed inside the lifters, thus they could not yet conclude that there were drugs inside. De Guzman at the time had only 10 months of experience in the post.

A day before the first day of probing at the House of Representatives, Lapeña had to choose and he stood with De Guzman.

“The allegation of one ton of shabu is circulating in the market has no basis, your honor…As government authorities, we have to be prudent in providing unverified information to the general public to allay further fear or confusion,” Lapeña said, citing PDEA’s drug swab test that yielded negative results.

Asked in a chance interview days before he was removed from his post as to why he sided with De Guzman, Lapeña replied, “Attorney De Guzman is the chief of the XIP so I will listen to her first, and she was the one who investigated her own technicians.”

Ignoring Mangaoang would prove to be costly as she went on to testify before the Senate blue ribbon committee, telling them what she had relayed to Lapeña.

The turning point

FAULTY LIFTERS. The magnetic lifters in General Mariano Alvarez turn out to be unsuitable for use and were likely made for containing contraband like illegal drugs. File photo by Ben Nabong/Rappler

A month later, an already disgruntled Mangaoang was invited by media outlets to get her side on the case.

Mangaoang crucified Lapeña as a commissioner covering up for illegal drugs because of his refusal to support PDEA’s conclusion that the lifters contained illegal drugs.

Lapeña could not refute the allegations because he was in the United States for his mother’s birthday. Besides, he did not think anybody would side with Mangaoang.

Probes by the House and Senate committees have not shown any evidence linking him to the group behind the magnetic lifter shipment: the so-called triumvirate of outcast law enforcers Jimmy Guban, Ismael Fajardo, and Eduardo Acierto.

With her sweeping statements delivered with a lot of fire, however, Mangaoang became an instant hit, delivering blows to Lapeña’s credibility.

When he got home, Lapeña was met with public outrage. When he spoke, Lapeña showed less conviction compared to his earlier statements. He no longer cited the swab test that yielded negative results or stood by their X-ray division to say the lifters were empty. Instead, he wanted the Senate and House committees to conclude for him.

“That matter has been presented to the committees. Attorney Mangaoang has said her piece, the X-ray, the XIP people of the BOC have said their piece, and that has been explained in the Senate, and let us hear what will be the result of appreciation of the Senate blue ribbon committee…Because I couldn’t preempt them,” Lapeña said in a mix of English and Filipino during his October 23 briefing at the BOC.

The next day, he completed the reversal.


What it took was the expert opinion of an agency far from the rings of anti-drug law enforcers who surrounded him from the beginning: the Department of Public Works and Highways (DPWH).

Listening to DPWH Director Toribio Ylao, Lapeña learned that the magnetic lifters found in Cavite “are not fit for purpose in terms of lifting, and [they are] unsafe to use.”

The DPWH’s reasoning: The magnetic lifters were too big, and had too much space inside to work. The items packed inside them were not found in any other industrial-grade magnetic lifters, as asbestos fillers are used to shield goods from overheating, and lead is used to fuzz up X-ray scans.

Within minutes, he echoed what his colleagues from PDEA and Mangaoang had been telling him: “Talagang may nakalusot nga (There were really [drugs] that slipped past us).”

Lapeña’s cover-up

TRUST KEPT. Isidro Lapeña is moved to TESDA after controversial final weeks at the Bureau of Customs. BOC PIAD photo

While he was not accused by lawmakers of trying to shield drug syndicates, Lapeña still stood out as being part of a cover-up, given that his personnel failed to stop the suspected shabu and given that they led him to believe for a long time that the lifters were empty.

“I do not believe you are part of a syndicate. I do not believe you are covering up for the network of illegal drugs. Ako ha (For me) personally, you are covering up for the incompetence or inefficiency of your people. That is what I can see,” Representative Romeo Acop said in the October 24 hearing.

The same thing was said by Senator Richard Gordon in an earlier Senate probe: “Your people are incompetent, replace them. They’ll put you in trouble.”

Lapeña did fire people in relation to the probe, but he only isolated two X-ray inspectors who released the lifters from the MICP. He kept his deputy commissioners untouched, even X-ray chief De Guzman.

In the end, whoever incompetent or inefficient personnel Lapeña was trying to protect, were already taken care of by Duterte, who sacked all deputy commissioners and unit heads Lapeña himself recommended to take posts.

Lapeña himself, meanwhile, was saved by Duterte – ejected from Customs and rewarded with a Cabinet position as chief of the Technical Education and Skills Development Authority, an area beyond his field of expertise. –

TOP PHOTO: PROMOTED BUT OUT. Isidro Lapeña is promoted after controversy sparked during the biggest shabu smuggling controversy to hit the Duterte administration. BOC PIAD photo.

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Rambo Talabong

Rambo Talabong covers the House of Representatives and local governments for Rappler. Prior to this, he covered security and crime. He was named Jaime V. Ongpin Fellow in 2019 for his reporting on President Rodrigo Duterte’s war on drugs. In 2021, he was selected as a journalism fellow by the Fellowships at Auschwitz for the Study of Professional Ethics.