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Break the back of smugglers, cartels

The names of alleged smugglers and bribe-givers and bribe-takers at the Bureau of Customs (BOC) exposed last week by Sen. Panfilo Lacson did not come as a surprise to Sen. Cynthia Villar who noted the same people previously identified in the smuggling of garlic and other agricultural products. Sen. Lacson unmasked the people behind the continuing “tara” (or payola) system of bribery at various ports and offices of the BOC in a privilege speech last week.

At least 44 people were included in the Lacson list as alleged bribe-givers or “players” at the BOC. One of them is customs broker-turned whistleblower Mark Taguba who claimed he transacted deals with the alleged “Davao Group.” Lacson tagged 21 other people as “collectors” or bagmen for the alleged “tara” regularly given to unscrupulous Customs officials. And Lacson listed 14 top BOC officers led by erstwhile Customs commissioner Nicanor Faeldon as alleged recipients of “tara.”

Faeldon resigned his post in the course of Senate Blue Ribbon committee hearings on the smuggling of P6.4 billion worth of shabu that slipped through Customs. Facing contempt for not attending the public hearing last week, Faeldon declared he would rather be jailed than coerced into testifying in today’s resumption of the Senate probe into this case.

As chairman of the Senate committee on agriculture, Sen. Villar told our Kapihan sa Manila Bay last Wednesday the names of smugglers and other people involved in “tara” system in the Lacson list are notably the same people behind the agricultural cartels controlling the markets for these basic goods and products.

While she may not be combative in her advocacy programs, Sen. Villar has been unrelenting in waging campaign against agricultural smuggling. But unlike her colleagues who are into high-profile Senate public hearings, she is pushing legal buttons to put an end to these notorious characters by crippling, if not totally eliminating their lucrative cartel trade. 

There are two ways to solve smuggling and cartel, Sen. Villar explained. One, she said, is developmental: “Educate our farmers to produce more at a competitive price.” The other way, she said, is prosecution under existing laws.

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She cited the prosecution mandate belongs to the Department of Justice (DOJ) under the law passed by Congress in 2015 declaring large-scale agricultural smuggling as economic sabotage. According to her, the implementing rules and regulations (IRR) of this law were approved only last July. Among other provisions, smuggling of agricultural products worth P1 million can be charged with economic sabotage.

Kapag economic sabotage, kulong ka muna, parang plunder, non-bailable,” she warned. “Sinabi ko sa DOJ, mag-sample kayo kahit isa sa cartel, isa sa smuggling. Kasi kapag hindi tayo nag-sample, walang matatakot sa atin,” Sen. Villar pointed out.

Sabi nila they (DOJ) will. We’ll see,” the Senator said.

But offhand, she rued: “Mahina ang prosecution. So we cannot wait for them.”

Sen. Villar vowed to break the garlic cartel in particular, the case of which she forwarded to the Philippine Competition Commission (PCC).

Under the PCC law, she cited, violators will be meted civil liability and face separate criminal liability that the DOJ will pursue against those found engaged in the garlic cartel. The IRR for the PCC took effect last August 8 after the law creating it was passed two years ago. “They were given two years – the cartels – to make changes and now August 8, they (PCC) can prosecute,” she pointed out.

Shifting to politics, Sen. Villar doused cold waters to persistent coffee shop talks about the purported return to politics of her husband, former Senate president Manny Villar. Although retired from politics, ex-Sen. Villar remains active as chieftain of the Nacionalista Party (NP). Her husband’s rumored plan is to contest the re-election bid of former president Joseph Estrada as Manila Mayor. These were further fueled by the frequent visits of the Villars at the vote-rich district in Baseco compound in Tondo, Manila.

She clarified it has nothing to do with politics but is in compliance with a Supreme Court (SC) mandamus on the Manila Bay clean up. It is an on-going toilet and wastewater treatment project of Sen. Villar benefitting 10,000 families, mostly informal settlers living at Baseco compound.

“We are not interested in Manila. We are interested to implement the mandamus in Manila Bay. Sen. Villar was really born in Tondo, we have a house in Tondo. That was the house where he was born which they were renting during those times. It was sold to us ten years ago. But it’s not about running for mayor. They (rumors) are imagining things,” Mrs. Villar ranted.

But speaking for herself, Mrs. Villar announced she is definitely running for re-election at the Senate in the coming 2019 mid-term elections. As the most senior party member, Sen. Villar will head the NP slate in the 12-man Senate race.

Offhand, she mentioned other Senate NP bets to include Pateros/Taguig Congresswoman Pia Cayetano and possibly Ilocos Norte Gov. Imee Marcos.

Sen. Villar also vehemently denied talks that their son, Department of Public Works and Highways (DPWH) Secretary Mark Villar, plans to run for the Senate. “It’s only me who will be at the Senate race in 2019,” Mrs. Villar declared.  “We don’t need to fill a full-slate of 12 Senatorial candidates to win the elections,” Sen. Villar quipped.

Cayetano, sister of the Foreign Affairs Secretary Alan Peter Cayetano, will try to make a comeback at the Senate. On the other hand, Gov. Marcos is on her third and last term as Governor. She used to represent the congressional district now being held by her mother, former First Lady, and now Ilocos Norte Congresswoman Mrs. Imelda Marcos.

Incidentally, only a few House members have confirmed to join today’s centennial birth anniversary of the late president Ferdinand Marcos. His widow organized a gathering at the Libingan ng mga Bayani where his waxed remains were transferred last year with the approval of President Rodrigo Duterte who is also among those invited.

Since the 2019 mid-term elections are still far from the horizon, Sen. Villar placed politics at the back seat while she goes around to check against cartel-driven smuggling activities. By doing so, she hopes to help break the back of smuggling and cartels that hurt welfare of Filipinos.

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