No BoC siege

Chief Presidential Legal Counsel Salvador Panelo

The only thing unusual when troops from the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) are sent to guard the Bureau of Customs (BoC) is their strict, stern and watchful eyes.

Otherwise, business goes as usual at the Aduana.

This was stressed by presidential spokesman Salvador Panelo yesterday in clarifying the issue on the reported takeover by soldiers of the BoC.

He said the soldiers will not hold regular positions.

“The President is not appointing or designating any part member of Armed Forces. These people will be there, first to make their presence felt; create the military presence and hopefully intimidate the corrupt people there, and number two, to assist them. I think the mere presence of these people there would do something right,” Panelo said.

Panelo added President Rodrigo Duterte’s order to AFP to temporarily oversee BoC operations should “intimidate” personnel involved in illegal acts in the agency.

Having the military involved in the day-to-day operations of the bureau, according to Panelo, will instill a certain level of fear among corrupt Customs employees.

Their presence will make the corrupt employees think twice before letting contraband pass through, Panelo said.

Mr. Duterte issued the directive to AFP Sunday night following an admission by officials about billions of pesos’ worth of crystal meth – also known as shabu – slipping past Customs watch.

Panelo refuted claims the President’s directive is unconstitutional as cited in Article XVI, Section 5 of the 1987 Constitution that “no member of the armed forces in the active service shall, at any time, be appointed or designated in any capacity to a civilian position in the Government, including government-owned or controlled corporations or any of their subsidiaries.”

“When there is lawless violence, the President can call up the AFP. Now, the lawless violence certainly would refer to what is happening in BoC. There is a state of lawlessness there,” he argued.

“If you can bring in hundreds of kilos of drugs then there must be some grave wrong in that area and there is a state of lawlessness there. It violates the law, it violates the Constitution, it endangers the security of our countrymen,” Panelo added.

President Duterte also reiterated this move is only temporary until the BoC shapes up. The Chief Executive made two drastic changes in recalling his appointed Customs Commissioners Nicanor Faeldon and Isidro Lapeña.

Lapeña was a former police officer while Faeldon was a former Philippine Marines captain.
They were both believed to have failed in their position as top Customs men when shabu shipments passed through the BoC under their watch.

Lapena was succeeded by Rey Leonardo Guerrero, a Philippine Army general and who also served as AFP chief of staff.

Panelo said the President had the right to make such move, citing the constitutional provision that the Chief Executive has control of all executive offices like the BoC.

In a separate statement issued on the same day, Panelo explained the President’s decision finds basis on his continuing authority under the Administrative Code to reorganize executive agencies and redistribute their functions for efficiency.

The President’s chief legal counsel cited the case of Kulayan v. Tan where the Supreme Court stated the President is “authorized to direct the movements of the naval and military forces placed by law at his command and to employ them in the manner he may deem most effectual.”

“Now with respect to being the Commander-in-Chief, he is authorized under the law to direct the movements of the Armed Forces of the Philippines in any manner he deems it fit,” Panelo said.

Panelo added the deployed AFP personnel will undergo several trainings to become competent in the fields they will be assigned to.

He also bared President Duterte will give the incoming Customs chief leeway to decide who among the AFP personnel will be enlisted to help him manage the BoC.

Meanwhile, Malacañang allayed fears raised by freight forwarders and courier companies about a lull or delay in operations during the BoC’s transition period, especially in door-to-door deliveries of parcels as the Christmas rush picks up.

“There is no lull or stoppage of the service provided by the BoC. There will be continuity of services rendered by them,” Panelo said.

The fourth quarter of the year is typically a peak season for shipments with the influx of cargoes related to the holidays and as manufacturers build up inventories for the following year.

In a related development, Muntinlupa Rep. Ruffy Biazon said government can emulate the “Peru model” to reform the corrupt BoC.

Biazon, a former Customs commissioner himself, cited Peru’s successful “cleansing” via a total overhaul of its Customs system.

“One country that did really close to an overhaul is Peru. In a way, they effectively rebooted, restarted their Customs system through legislation,” Biazon said in an exclusive Daily Tribune interview.

Biazon added the government of Peru practically started from “scratch” in reforming the Customs system –commencing on revising their tariffication law and passing a law authorizing to discontinue the service of personnel.

“It was successful, it became a model that is being presented by the World Customs Organization. It was one of the success stories and within a few years the revenue collection shot up, the integrity of border security improved,” Biazon said.

“It sounds drastic, it started from scratch but someone has already done it. There is a model already,” he added.

Biazon said the Philippines is similarly situated as Peru before it implemented the drastic measure of “rebooting” its Customs systems.

“The Customs problem is not unique to the Philippines, there are other countries similarly situated, facing exactly the same problems,” Biazon said.

According to Biazon, Mr. Duterte’s order for AFP to take over BoC could be the first big step toward reforming the corruption-laden government agency.

“How it’s going to be done, it’s still a question. For how long? There will be question on the legal authority of the AFP to perform Customs functions plus their capability,” Biazon said.

According to Biazon, the problems at the BoC are deeply rooted that not even an incorruptible commissioner can address by himself.

“It’s not about personality. It’s the system,” Biazon said.

with Mario Mallari and Elmer N. Manuel