PNP, PDEA, BOC officers implicated in P6.8-B shabu probe

Rambo Talabong

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PNP, PDEA, BOC officers implicated in P6.8-B shabu probe
The probe points to possible collusion among officers from the frontline anti-drug agencies of Duterte's war on drugs

MANILA, Philippines – As the House of Representatives and the Senate committees continue probing the missing P6.8-billion shabu (methamphetamine) allegedly packed inside magnetic lifters and spirited out of the Customs area, it has become apparent that no less than personnel inside the government’s anti-drug agencies could be involved.

From the simultaneous probes, former and current officers from the Bureau of Customs (BOC), Philippine National Police (PNP), and Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency (PDEA) have been implicated in facilitating the shipment of the lifters.

House committee on dangerous drugs chairperson Representative Robert Ace Barbers called them a “triumvirate”: Resigned Customs intelligence officer Jimmy Guban, sacked PDEA deputy chief Ismael Fajardo, and dismissed PNP Senior Superintendent Eduardo Acierto.

 All were in active service when the controversial shipment arrived in Manila.

Here’s what has been established so far from the probe.

How they are involved

ENEMY WITHIN? PDEA chief Aaron Aquino completes inspection of magnetic lifters found in Cavite, which are believed to have been packed with illegal drugs. File photo by Ben Nabong/Rappler

Standing at the center is resigned Customs officer Jimmy Guban, who has been cited in contempt by both the House committees on dangerous drugs and good government, and the Senate blue ribbon committee.

Guban admitted in the House probe on September 27 that he had recruited SMYD Trading to be a consignee-for-hire for the magnetic lifters. (TIMELINE: The search for P6.8-B shabu ‘smuggled’ into PH)

According to Guban, he was only ordered by his long-time colleague dismissed cop Eduardo Acierto, a veteran anti-drug operative in the PNP whom Guban knew supposedly from drug busts.

Asked why he looked for a consignee even as an intelligence officer, Guban told lawmakers: “ ‘Yun po ay normal na nangyayari sa Bureau of Customs (That happens normally inside the Bureau of Customs).”

Without expounding, Guban then claimed that the consignee-for-hire was for “intelligence operations.” But he admitted that he received money—at least P10,000—from Acierto for helping out.

Guban said he first met Acierto through sacked PDEA No. 2 official, Deputy Director General for Administration Ismael Fajardo, who was a former policeman before joining the PDEA.

It remains unclear what Fajardo’s involvement in the shipment is, but PDEA chief Director General Aaron Aquino said his former deputy chief is already undergoing a lifestlyle check.

Aquino believes that Fajardo holds “information” about the alleged smuggled shabu.

Acierto has also yet to explain his side of the story as before he could explain himself at the probe of the Senate blue ribbon committee, the hearing was adjourned because the Senate’s session was about to begin.

X-rays manipulated?

At the Senate probe, meanwhile, no less than the BOC’s former X-ray chief Lourdes Mangaoang claimed that Customs failed to follow standard operating procedures when the magnetic lifters were brought into the country.

She added that the Customs’ X-ray operators could even manipulate the scanners to make scans less suspicious.

“It (the X-ray scan) can be darkened [to hide smuggled items],” said Mangaoang during the Senate panel probe on September 26.

Mangaoang, now a deputy collector at the Ninoy Aquino International Airport, said that the X-ray operators should also have ordered examiners to open the shipment as they found that the magnetic lifters were hollow.

“It is SOP that if we see the image indicates that there are still items there (shipment) with compartments inside or hollow inside, we automatically subject it to physical examination, if they are properly trained,” Mangaoang said.

DEBATED. This is a sample of a pseudocolor scan of the magnetic lifters. Courtesy of House Committee on Dangerous Drugs

Mangaoang even showed an X-ray photo which was scanned with the pseudocolor setting of their X-ray machines. She said that the noise shown inside the magnetic lifters are items stuffed inside them. She said she does not know whether they are shabu. (READ: Empty or shabu-packed? X-ray scans of magnetic lifters revealed)

In an interview with Rappler, sitting Customs X-ray chief Zsae de Guzman disputed Mangaoang’s claims, saying that the X-ray operators did their job, and properly scanned the shipment.

De Guzman said that the noise perceived in the scan images Mangaoang presented were “distortions” caused by the pseudocolor setting. Her X-ray operators used the greyscale setting which minimized these noises, she said.

De Guzman added that their current X-ray machines are not capable of telling whether “organic” items like illegal drugs are inside shipments.

To settle the debate on the X-rays, Senate blue ribbon committee chairman Senator Richard Gordon said he will invite an independent X-ray expert to interpret the scans.

Biggest question unanswered

STILL SEARCHING. PDEA chief Aaron Aquino inspects an empty magnetic lifter found in General Mariano Alvarez, Cavite. PDEA photo

The elephant in the room continues to haunt the probes: Were the lifters packed with drugs or not?

Gordon has already decided that the lifters were indeed packed with shabu, backing the claim of the PDEA, and contradicting those of the BOC, the PNP, and even President Rodrigo Duterte. (READ: Gordon on magnetic lifters: ‘May laman!’)

Hindi ako naniniwalang walang drugs (I don’t believe that there are no drugs inside). You can tell the President I said so,” Gordon said during an ambush interview after the panel probe on Wednesday, September 26.

Gordon’s belief is fueled by the testimony of maintenance man Eric Rodelas, who helped out Chinese-looking persons in securing the magnetic lifters inside the same warehouse where they were later found in General Mariano Alvarez, Cavite.

Rodelas said he saw one of the Chinese-looking men bring out a grinder just before he left. This, according to Gordon, is already a sure sign that the lifters carried something inside, which he said is logically illegal drugs.

Barbers, meanwhile said he already has “strong reason” to believe the same.

“Based on circumstances present and testimonies of vital witnesses, I have a strong reason to believe that there was shabu concealed in the lifters, similar to the 2 found in an abandoned container at the MICP (Manila International Container Port),” Barbers said in a text message to Rappler.

But Barbers also admitted that his strong belief still could not stand in court, given that they have only established circumstantial evidence, unlike in their 2017 probe of the P6.4-billion shabu found in a Valenzuela warehouse.

“On a legal perspective, if there’s no corpus delicti in the scene of the crime, therefore we cannot conclude that there was (shabu),” Barbers added.

Gordon has set the resumption of his committee’s probe on October 3. Barbers has yet to announce the schedule for his committee. –

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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.