No point in being govt whistleblower
GOTCHA - Jarius Bondoc (The Philippine Star) - September 7, 2020 - 12:00am

Lamenting unabated government sleaze, President Duterte wished whistleblowers would help his delayed cleanup. But does it pay to rat on crooked colleagues? Duterte specified Philhealth and Customs last week. In the former, revamp is underway. Disgusted resigned appointees bared in Senate inquiries a Mafia of long-time execs in multibillion-peso scams. In the latter, a career officer helped bust the celebrated shabu smuggling inside magnetic lifters in 2018. Today she continues to be passed up for promotion.

Atty. Lourdes Villamar Mangaoang was Customs operations deputy at Port of Manila when the trafficking occurred. A raid at a warehouse in Cavite yielded four magnetic lifters emptied of contents. The Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency's best sniffer canine sat after circling each of the giant metal wheels. Meaning, there were traces of the powdery white shabu (meth). Warehousemen had tipped off the narcs upon seeing on TV news two similar contraptions interdicted at Manila International Container Port hiding the substance. But the PDEA was stumped since Chinese nationals already had carted away the stuff from Cavite weeks before.

Mangaoang meanwhile was handed x-rays of the Cavite contraband taken earlier at MICP screening. The x-ray maker's techs were sure, from ten image analysis tools (color, contrast, shapes, etc.) that the lifters had shabu. They trusted Mangaoang with the info after working together when she headed the x-ray division in 2008-2012. Mangaoang noticed that Customs officials were publicizing darkened unprocessed images that showed no oddities. She proceeded to warn her chief, but got no cooperation.

Mangaoang went to the Cavite warehouse to inspect the lifters, diameter taller than her. She noticed they had not come with the requisite operating platform and crane. The iron was only 1.5 inches thick, penetrable by x-ray up to 11 inches. Mangaoang advised PDEA to reweigh the cargo container plus four magnetic lifters against the gross cargo weight declared in the bill of lading. The difference would show the volume of shabu sneaked past Customs. PDEA gasped: 1,600 kilos worth P11 billion.

Mangaoang went on to testify in parallel House and Senate inquiries. It appeared from records that the four lifters hastily were cleared for release on a Sunday, by an undertrained x-ray screener under a loafing supervisor. A government engineer also swore under oath that the lifters were fake. Not only were they oversized but also were lined on the inside with lead in a vain attempt to diffuse the x-ray.

Protocols had been broken, Mangaoang swore. During her tenure only fully-trained techs were assigned to the x-rays. Metal containers were supposed to be physically inspected. Every Friday all x-ray images were reviewed for correctness of clearance. That's how, on her first month as x-ray chief, her unit intercepted drugs. In safes and other metal cylinders they kept discovering firearms. During her stint Customs collections rose, along with contraband capture.

Mangaoang had counseled her chief to suspend at once the negligent x-ray screener and supervisor. Instead it was she who was moved from Port of Manila to deputy for passenger services at the Manila International Airport. And while appearing at the Senate, she was relieved of assignment, on "floating status". The chief subsequently was taken out of Customs.

On appointment as new Customs chief, retired general Rey Leonardo Guerrero endorsed Mangaoang to reassume as head of all Customs x-ray inspections nationwide. Assistant commissioners too recommended her as their best bet. Press announcements were made.

Higher-ups at the finance department sat on Mangaoang's papers. She was merely restored to the airport.

New x-rays have been procured at P180 million apiece to augment the originals. Altogether, according to Deputy Commissioner Vincent Philip Maronilla, there are six at Port of Manila and five at MICP. Two new ones are in Cebu. Those seaports are the usual contraband drop-offs. The new x-rays are equipped with artificial intelligence: they automatically distinguish by color the organic, inorganic, and other types of contents in cargo containers. Images are taken even while the container trailers are moving at five to 17 kilometers per hour. Machine learning enables the x-rays to pile up more and more info on regular cargo and contraband. All containers are now subject to x-ray.

Still, as Duterte noted, drugs continue to be smuggled. Last June 756 kilos of shabu worth P5.1 billion were seized in Bulacan. The PDEA and National Police have long dismantled all local shabu factories. That haul could only have come through Customs. The x-rays can only be as good as the screeners manning them and their head. Present Customs systems do not allow multiple -- therefore counterchecking -- image monitors and screeners per machine, Maronilla admits.

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Condolences to the family of Lucia "Letty" Gonzales Tan, who passed away Aug. 31, 2020, at 77. She left behind her bereaved spouse Lucio, and children Michael and Angeline, Sharon and Edgard, John and Nancy, Cherry and Alfred, Timmy and Christine, and grandchildren.

Wake: The Heritage Park, Taguig City, till Sep. 7, 10 a.m.-6 p.m.

Funeral mass: Sept. 8, accessible via Zoom. Interment limited to family members.

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Catch Sapol radio show, Saturdays, 8 to 10 a.m., DWIZ (882-AM).

My book "Exposés: Investigative Reporting for Clean Government" is available on Amazon:

Paperback: or at National Bookstores.

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