Customs purged

President Duterte (Presidential photo)

“Everyone is out, to the last man, the commissioners are out, the department heads out,” an incensed President Rodrigo Duterte ordered yesterday to effect an overhaul of the corruption-ridden Bureau of Customs (BoC).

Amid the mounting calls for a leadership change at the BoC, Mr. Duterte also announced the “promotion” of BoC Commissioner Isidro Lapeña as the new director general of the Technical Education and Skills Development Authority (TESDA).

To prove he means business in cleaning the BoC, Duterte also ordered all current BoC personnel to be placed on “floating status” so that Guerrero can freely choose his people.

Taking over Lapeña’s post at the BoC is another retired military man, former Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) Chief of Staff and current Maritime Industry Authority Administrator Rey Guerrero.

“General Lapeña will move to TESDA. I will promote you to a Cabinet member position.
General Jagger, Guerrero, you are to move to the Bureau of Customs,” Duterte said in his speech at the 117th anniversary celebration of the Philippine Coast Guard in Manila where Lapeña was present.

“Sid, the job at TESDA is quite something (difficult), it could be messy at times, but I’m sure your training as a military man, just like Jagger (Guerrero’s nickname), would augur well for the country,” the Chief Executive added.

Lapeña’s transfer came a day after Duterte called on him and Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency (PDEA) Chief Aaron Aquino to “stop blaming each other” and instead “work together in the government’s fight against illegal drugs” and just hours after Lapeña appeared at a news conference in Malacañang and insisted he won’t step down from his post despite mounting pressure for him to leave the agency.

Obviously caught by surprise over his reassignment, Lapeña said he remains thankful to the President for the continued trust and confidence in him.

Former TESDA head Guiling Mamondiong recently tendered his resignation after filing his certificate of candidacy for Lanao del Sur governor in next year’s mid-term polls.

“I did not know. But, of course, any government employee should expect that anytime, he can be subjected to a movement. For me, this is a movement upward,” the outgoing BoC chief told reporters moments after the announcement.

“TESDA is another important department in the government,” he added.

Lapeña served as Customs commissioner for more than a year. He was appointed in late August last year.

Gov’t narco ring eyed

Earlier, Lapeña and Aquino had buried the hatchet and vowed to unite in pursuing the war on drugs, including the dismantling of the “drug syndicate that pervades the government.”

In the crosshairs of the joint effort will also be big-time drug syndicates that smuggle billions of pesos’ worth of shabu into the country.

Aquino and Lapeña said they will work closely together to fight syndicates involved in the illegal drugs trade.

In a speech in Malacañang on Wednesday, the President urged Lapeña and Aquino to stop blaming each other and instead go after the syndicate behind the smuggling of narcotics into the country.

“That is why (the shipment) slipped through them. Instead of killing the idiots, they were blaming each other,” Duterte said.

He described Lapeña and Aquino as men of good character and integrity.

The two senior government officials were at odds over the P6.8-billion shabu shipment loaded into four magnetic lifters recovered after being abandoned at a warehouse in General Mariano Alvarez, Cavite last August.

Aquino insisted about 1,000 kilograms of shabu were loaded in the lifters and taken out by Chinese nationals. Until Wednesday, Lapeña had stood firm there was no shabu in the magnetic lifters which were similar to the two seized by the BoC at the Manila International Container Port (MICP) loaded with 355 kilograms of shabu.

Lapeña made the turn around during an inquiry at the House of Representatives after hearing a testimony of equipment experts from the Department of Public Works and Highways (DPWH).

United front

“Immediately after the hearing, I went to him (Lapeña) and told him ‘sir, we can now start a joint investigation of the matter,’” Aquino said in a radio interview.

For his part, Lapeña stressed he and Aquino had been okay even with their differing stand on the matter before.

“We can now move on and focus on running after the syndicate,” said Lapeña in a separate broadcast interview.

“That is now the past, we can now work together,” he added.

Both Aquino and Lapeña acknowledged the need for the entire government to stand united against big-time drug syndicates which have the “capabilities and finances” to avoid being tracked down by authorities.

Lapeña vowed to pursue charges against BoC Intelligence Agent Jimmy Guban and to assist PDEA in going after syndicates operating within the government.

The BoC will file cases against several BoC employees, including Gorgonio Necessario, who is a subordinate of Guban at the Customs Intelligence and Investigation Service.

Necessario claimed before a Senate probe on the P6.8 billion worth of drugs that slipped past the agency that he was present when the shipment, consigned to Vecaba Trading, was opened by Customs and PDEA officials.

Cooperation necessary

Lapeña at a Palace briefing said cooperation between PDEA and BoC has remained strong and guaranteed that “there will never be any cover-up under my watch.”

Lapeña recalled that Mr. Duterte gave him a marching order to stop corruption and increase revenue collections as BoC head.

“And that’s what I’m doing and the job is not yet completely done. While we have increased revenue collections, we have been collecting revenue at an all-time high since I assumed as the Commissioner in August 30 of 2017 and onward,” he said.

“Last year (the target was) P458 billion and now it is P598 billion but we are hitting our target. And one reason for that, why we are hitting the target is we have addressed, that is a result of addressing corruption besetting the bureau for many years now,” Lapeña said.

“We have started with the short-term doables. What we do there is to disturb the collusion of the players, as well as the people in the Bureau of Customs who have been directly related to each other, including in the ‘suki’ (patronage) system where they fix the amount of payola in place of duties and taxes levied on each container van.”

Not foolproof

With Lapeña’s sudden reversal on the seized canisters which he now admits may have contained shabu, Muntinlupa Rep. Ruffy Biazon pointed out three frailties of the BoC’s X-ray system that were exploited to smuggle contrabands in the country.

Biazon, who was a former Customs commissioner, said the lack of supervision in the actual image processing and analysis opens an opportunity to exercise imprudence.

“Although findings are submitted to a supervisor, the analysts are unsupervised during the actual image processing and analysis, opening an opportunity for exercise of indiscretion. This was confirmed by BoC X-ray operator and analyst Manuel Martinez who was invited to the hearing,” Biazon said in a statement.

He added the data were vulnerable to unauthorized access following the statement of Atty. Lourdes Mangaoang that she acquired the images she used for her presentation and unofficial investigation from the X-ray provider personnel instead of the official process of obtaining the files.

with Raymart Lolo and Mario J. Mallari