BOC: Stage 4 cancer of corruption

SPY BITS - The Philippine Star

This latest embarrassing incident involving a Bureau of Customs examiner who opened a diplomatic pouch meant for the Embassy of Japan has renewed calls for the overhaul of the BOC. Apologies have been made over this faux pas that the Customs bureau explained away as a “simple misunderstanding,” saying they will conduct a refresher course on how to handle diplomatic cargo. People are not happy the offending examiner is simply being given a warning and a reprimand, some say the man should have been suspended, if not fired, for not knowing his job.

Despite being shown a certificate from the DFA allowing the release of the pouches, the examiner insisted on opening them, which should tell you that BOC people feel all powerful when they are inside their “turf.” We all know the BOC is an important institution because it is a major source of revenue for the government – which also makes it a big source of corruption.

By simply turning a blind eye to smuggling and drug trafficking, a Customs employee can enrich himself. The Philippines has very porous borders, which already makes it a challenge to apprehend smugglers, and the situation is exacerbated by the connivance of corrupt Customs examiners and port officials who give the green light to illicit cargo. Even if authorities (like the PDEA, the PNP or NBI) conduct operations to apprehend these smugglers, all the insiders from the BOC have to do is tip the target for the operation to go bust.

Let’s face it, the BOC – which many Filipinos have renamed as the “Bureau of Corruption” – is perceived as one of the most corrupt agencies in the country, embroiled in a lot of controversies like the tanim bala/laglag bala which has given the country a black eye before the international community. This has made visitors and overseas Filipino workers paranoid to the point they now “mummify” their bags and luggage to prevent getting victimized by the laglag bala syndicates operating at the NAIA.

If corruption were a disease, then the BOC would be suffering from Stage 4 cancer because corruption has become very deeply entrenched in the system to the point that amputation or surgery will no longer work. Aside from being systemic, the corruption is “systematic” with certain groups working as a team to put the squeeze on hapless brokers and businessmen. All these crooks have to do is sit on the documents and let the cargo freeze or worse, rot (if they are perishable goods and items) – until the owner has no choice but to give in to the Customs’ “tradition” – which is really a euphemism for a shakedown and the practice of “solicited bribery.” No wonder the Customs bureau keeps missing its target (five straight years in a row now) because the collections go in the pockets of these corrupt employees instead of government coffers. Imagine, trillions of pesos have been lost over the years due to technical smuggling.

The fact is, businessmen have been urging the President to overhaul the BOC and put in an oversight committee, with representatives from the private sector, to make it more transparent. Others have suggested a top-to-bottom revamp to remove the collectors and examiners from their comfort zones and assign them elsewhere, but you can bet your bottom dollar that sooner than soon, the corrupt will find a way to monetize their new assignments.

For the longest time, many have proposed the privatization of the BOC to give it a clean slate. No matter how straight the Customs chief is, his job will be made difficult by defiant old timers who we’re told deliberately underperform as far as collection is concerned to put the BOC chief under a negative light. Even if you put a clean person on top, weeding out corruption is still very challenging if the system is rotten at the core. However, privatizing the BOC will make it easier to professionalize the operations and put the right people for the right job because meritocracy will be practiced instead of the padrino system where influential individuals – including politicians – have a say on who gets appointed to what position and where.

One piece of good news, however, is the proposed Customs Modernization and Tariff Act (CMTA) has been approved on third and final reading at the Senate. The proposed bill will amend the existing Tariff and Customs Code that is no longer responsive to the changing needs of a modern world.  Under the bill, the BOC will be brought to the 21st century with the help of modern equipment as well as information and communications technology that are in keeping with the standards set by the revised Kyoto Convention. According to insiders, people can already make money just by putting in wrong entries for the quantity, weight or quality of the goods that pass through Customs that will result in lesser duties – with the difference pocketed by the crooks.

The proposed law will upgrade the processing system into an electronic one so that goods would be cleared faster and more efficiently to avoid the long wait especially during peak seasons like Christmas. For sure, Filipinos especially the OFWs, will be happy to note there is also a proposal to raise the tax-exempt value of balikbayan boxes to P150,000 from the current P10,000, while donation and relief goods will be duty free and tax free during calamities. The latter is really important because we have heard so many stories about people wanting to donate clothes, food, medicines and even medical equipment but they could not afford the taxes slapped on the items so they end up not sending anything to victims of disasters and calamities.

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Email: spybits08@gmail.com

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