Corruption at BOC

Well, what else is new? Ever since I can remember, the Bureau of Customs is a place where corruption is the rule rather than the exception. It’s a culture that was introduced by the Spanish colonial rulers. The Americans improved it. And the Filipinos made it a part of their daily lives after the Americans left. Indeed, after 400 years under colonial rule, corruption is inbred into the Filipino psyche.

It is not surprising then that the Philippine government is deeply immersed in corruption, from the top, down to the lowest levels of the bureaucracy. And the government agencies where corruption is most prevalent are the two highest revenue-generating agencies: the Bureau of Internal Revenue (BIR) and the Bureau of Customs (BOC).

Recently, the BOC made the headlines when a shipment of 605 kilograms of “shabu” (crystal meth) – worth P6.4 billion – was smuggled through the BOC and ended up in a warehouse in Valenzuela City. A BOC team recovered the contraband, which originated from China last May, after being tipped off by the Chinese government. However, the raid on the warehouse was not coordinated with the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency (PDEA), which is responsible for illegal drug operations. Why? This is the P6.4-billion question.

But unlike other corruption cases involving government agencies, the BOC case unleashed a torrential amount of finger-pointing, particularly against BOC Commissioner Nicanor Faeldon. Faeldon and top BOC officials are under fire for allowing the contraband to pass through BOC without inspection, which is a violation of BOC regulations.

But ever the controversial figure that he was –Faeldon gained national and international attention when he participated in the Oakwood Mutiny on 2003 — President Rodrigo Duterte appointed Faeldon to the BOC post last year with high expectations. He gave Faeldon a mandate to clean up the BOC of corruption. Shall I say, “Hahaha,” now or save it for later?

Scapegoat, anyone?

And now the search for a scapegoat is on. Yep, it’s time again for another “Whodunit” witch-hunt in Congress. Several senators demanded that Duterte fire Faeldon for the P6.4-billion imbroglio. Senate Minority Leader Franklin Drilon sought a reorganization of the BOC, including the firing of Faeldon. He accused Faeldon and other BOC officials of incompetence. Faeldon shot back, saying that some members of Congress have peddled influence in the BOC. However, he rejected calls for him to name names. “I don’t want to publicly embarrass people,” he said, explaining that he would only reveal the names of the politicians in an executive session.

Meanwhile, Sen. Richard Gordon, chair of the Senate Blue Ribbon Committee investigating the shabu shipment, said that he told Duterte of his disappointment that Duterte hasn’t dismissed Faeldon yet despite the recommendation of several senators and congressmen.

But Puwersa ng Bayaning Atleta Rep. Jericho Nograles defended Faeldon. He said that Faeldon’s “lack of understanding on the office’s dynamics might have unwittingly allowed the people surrounding him to manipulate the system and continue corrupt practices.” “Commissioner Faeldon might be clean and true to his mandate but I don’t feel the same way on the people who are with him. That shabu shipment that passed through the green lane could have not happened without the knowledge of people in his office,” he said, which begs the question: What is the “green light”?

At a House of Representatives Ways and Means Committee hearing, suspended risk management officer Larribert Hilario of BOC testified that he tried to request an “alert order” on the shabu shipment, which would have resulted in a “full physical examination.” But for some fuzzy reason, Import Assessment Services (IAS) Director Milo Maestrecampo did not act on his request. Protocol categorizes imported products to pass through four lanes, depending on the risk level: super-green, green, yellow and red. The shipment, which was declared as “kitchenware,” went through the green lane because of the “lack of parameters” that would have signaled the need for stricter inspection.

But several red flags were raised about the shipment: (1) All were unusually assessed at having P40,000 in value-added taxes for importation of varying quantities; and (2) The shipment was consigned to a “new” trading firm, EMT Trading, which should have warranted random physical inspection.

Chinese connection

What is interesting to note is that the owner of Hongfei Logistics, the warehouse where the shabu shipment was seized, is a Chinese businessman named Richard Tan (alias Richard Chen, Chen Yu Long, and Ken Joo Lung). Tan, who spoke only in Chinese through an interpreter, revealed during the Senate hearing that he received a phone call from Wang Zi Dong, head of the inspection department of the Customs of China, informing him that the shipment from China included illegal drugs. Tan said that Wang called him to inform to the BOC to check the shipment. He also said that China Customs has arrested the suspects.

But while China’s assistance in the seizure of the shabu shipment was commendable, it brings to fore the question: Why didn’t the China Customs stop the transshipment of the shabu? Or could it be that China Customs is uncontrollably corrupt just like its Philippine counterpart, the Bureau of Customs? Does the Chinese criminal syndicate Triad control the flow of goods in and out of China, just like the way it is the Philippines? If so, then one has to resign to the fact the BOC and – most possibly — all the other custom houses around the world are like a snake pit: a place of vicious behavior and ruthless competition, where the “rule of survival” is: the fittest rule and there is no room for losers.

The plot thickens

But that’s not the end of the story. During the House Committee hearing, Mark Taguba, a customs broker testified that Davao City Vice Mayor Paolo Duterte, one of the president’s sons, was “name-dropped” by BOC officials who were receiving P27,000 in bribes. However, Taguba said that he didn’t have any evidence to prove it. Paolo’s dad, President Duterte, immediately came to the defense of his son. “Corruption is the one that I really do not like. Pati iyong anak ko ngayon, sinasali diyan sa Customs. I told you before and I am telling you now again, sino sa anak ko ma-involve sa corruption, I will immediately resign. That you have my word,” he said.

But Duterte’s harshest critic, detained Sen. Leila de Lima, has a different opinion of the situation. She claimed that Duterte launched an attack against her in an attempt to “divert attention from the alleged involvement of his son Paolo in the smuggling of illegal drugs.” She said the mention of Paolo’s name in the House committee hearing proves the confession of hitman Edgar Matobato that Paolo was involved in smuggling. “Although a lot has yet to be uncovered and proven before any case is solidly built against Paolo Duterte,” de Lima added, “the controversy offers a delectable story that the President’s drug war is merely paving the way for his son’s rise to power in the criminal underworld as the country’s number one drug lord and smuggler.”

At the end of the day, life at the BOC goes on. Hundreds of containers pass through the “green line” each day. Custom examiners routinely go over the paperwork and sign off. Occasionally, a suspicious-looking shipment is routed through the yellow and red lines, which is then opened for inspection. And occasionally, the paperwork doesn’t match what was inside the container. The importer would then be asked to pay the difference in tariff and taxes, unless the shipment was contraband, which is then confiscated. And this is where the influence peddler or fixer comes in – to settle the “problem” on behalf of the importer. The fixer earns his or her “commission” or “lagay” and moves on, a much-happier – and richer – person. Hahaha…