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‘Kalakaran’ at the Customs Bureau

Barely a month into office, newly installed Bureau of Customs (BOC) Commissioner Isidro Lapeña announced yesterday wide and deep ranging revamp at the agency. According to Lapeña, he will relieve about 90 percent of the agency’s section chiefs in the assessment division starting on Monday. The revamp comes at the heels of the controversial smuggling of P6.4 billion worth of shabu that slipped through at the Customs Bureau last May during the watch of Lapeña’s immediate predecessor, ex-Customs commissioner Nicanor Faeldon.

In his official announcement, Lapeña disclosed the revamp seeks to stop the “tara” system or grease money which the Customs Bureau has been notoriously known for. From information he has gathered and validated, the “culture of corruption” in the agency is most prevalent among the appraisers and the examiners at the Bureau’s assessment division.

A retired police general, Lapeña will have to sharpen more his sleuthing skills to weed out corrupt and grafters among government personnel at the Customs Bureau. If he is really sincere to break the back of the “culture of corruption” at the Customs Bureau, Lapeña must include at the chopping block unscrupulous brokers and importers who transact their official business with his agency.

This was the advice echoed by Muntinlupa Rep. Rozzano Rufino “Ruffy” Biazon, erstwhile Customs commissioner, who was our featured guest during our Kapihan sa Manila Bay last Wednesday at the Café Adriatico in Malate. Biazon shared with us his insights into the troubles that bedevil the No. 2 biggest revenue collecting agency of government he once headed.

A bit of history: Biazon was named to head the BOC in September 2011, or this was a few months after a one year ban against those who run but lost in elections lapsed. Biazon was among the 12-man Senate ticket of Liberal Party (LP) during the May 2010 elections. After his third and last term as Congressman, Biazon run but lost his Senate bid.

Biazon decided to return to Congress when he run and won in the May election last year under LP to replace his father, Rodolfo. The elder Biazon was originally planning to run again for the 12-man Senate under LP ticket in the same elections. But somewhere along the way, the elder Biazon was eased out of the LP slate. 

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Typical of party-changing in the Philippines, the younger Biazon jumped along with many other LP Congressmen to the PDP-Laban that became the new ruling party at the 17th Congress.

Fast forward. Now Rep. Ruffy Biazon is back in harness as a legislator focused on his advocacies which included a pet bill to continue the reforms at the Bureau of Customs. In particular, Biazon is pushing his bill that proposes to allow the BOC to keep one percent of its annual total revenue collections to be exclusively used to modernize the agency. This would effectively amend the Customs Modernization and Tariff Act (CMTA) that PNoy signed into law.

Biazon could only commiserate with Faeldon who resigned under a cloud of accusations on the smuggled P6.4 billion shabu case. Biazon tried but failed to grill Faeldon during the House hearing on the shabu smuggling case when the latter refused to cooperate in the congressional inquiry.

In a parallel inquiry done by the Senate Blue Ribbon Committee on shabu smuggling, Faeldon and the rest of the Customs Bureau came also under fire from Sen. Panfilo Lacson who exposed the so-called "tara" system at the BOC. Faeldon strongly took exceptions to the expose of Sen. Lacson as “too sweeping” to include the entire workforce of the BOC, many of whom he insisted were unfairly tagged as corrupt. 

In the aftermath of Senate and House investigations into the controversial shabu shipment, President Rodrigo Duterte accepted the resignation of Faeldon. The Chief Executive immediately appointed Lapeña last Aug. 31 to head the BOC. The President cited his trust and confidence to the former director-general of the Philippine Drugs Enforcement Agency (PDEA) to do a better job at the Customs Bureau, especially in preventing entry of shabu and other illegal drugs coming into our country from China, and other foreign sources.

Lapeña became the 39th commissioner in the 115-year- old Customs Bureau. By law of average, Biazon mentally calculated, the shelf life of a Customs commissioner is barely two years, or at the most, three years only.

Biazon served for a little over two years as Customs chief during the administration of former President Benigno “P-Noy” Aquino III. He was the 35th commissioner of the Bureau. Biazon resigned as Customs chief after he was implicated in the alleged pork-barrel scam while he was still in Congress before.

If really true to his intentions to reform the BOC, Biazon urged Faeldon to cooperate in the congressional hearings to plug loopholes in the laws, if any, are needed. Not doing so, Biazon tells Faeldon he will regret missing the opportunity to help put an end to the much-ballyhooed “kalakaran” pestering the bureaucracy at the BOC through these years.

In the parlance of people at the Customs Bureau that he inherited from his predecessors, Biazon referred to it as the “kalakaran,” or the ways or the practice of transacting and doing business at the Customs Bureau. 

Speaking from his own experience, Biazon related how he was unwittingly used in the extortion racket during his first few months into office. Because of his avowed policy to act immediately on complaints even coming from anonymous sources or mere text messages, Biazon realized belatedly that Customs racketeers used them as opportunity to coerce their potential victims to shell out grease money.

During his watch at the Bureau, Biazon said he did not have the problem though of the so-called “Davao Group” that allegedly involved Faeldon in the “tara” system. Opposition Sen. Antonio Trillanes IV linked President Duterte’s son, Davao City Vice Mayor Paolo Duterte to the “Davao Group” allegedly behind the P6.4 billion shabu smuggling.

Reminiscing his own woes while he was Customs chief, Biazon swears he had no “Tarlac Group” (an allusion to P-Noy’s home province) to deal with.

While still new as Customs chief, Biazon recalled someone told him: “At Aduana, commissioners come and go, but tara will always stay here.”

The ex-Customs chief could only tell though to his immediate predecessors who tried but failed to reform the Bureau: “Been there, done that.” But the “kalakaran” at Customs Bureau will always beat them all.

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