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Opinion

‘Denied to death’

SENTINEL - Ramon T. Tulfo - The Philippine Star

The Bureau of Customs, apparently wanting to save face, has seized P85 million worth of smuggled agricultural products after its high officials were linked to the smuggling of vegetables, poultry and meat products.

Then outgoing Senate President Tito Sotto exposed the big-time corruption from Customs Commissioner Rey Leonardo Guerrero down to Yasser Abbas, chief of the bureau’s import and assessment service.

It seems the holdover customs officials are in the habit of seizing smuggled agricultural products whenever they are exposed in the media.

A case in point was the announcement by Deputy Customs Commissioner Raniel Ramiro of the seizure of frozen meat products from China valued at P85 million.

Ramiro, deputy commissioner for the intelligence group, was one of those implicated in protecting smuggled agricultural shipments.

Last month, the customs intelligence agents swooped down on warehouses and stores selling imported fruits, vegetables, poultry and meat products that paid little or no duties when they passed through customs. This was after Sotto also denounced the unholy alliance between customs and Department of Agriculture officials for looking the other way in the smuggling of imported food products.

The National Intelligence and Coordinating Agency (NICA) washed its hands of the controversial report, saying it was not the source.

NICA Director Edsel Batalla said his agency never provided the report to the Senate.

Customs chief Guerrero “denied to death” – to quote a Filipino-coined phrase – he was ever involved in protecting smugglers, saying intelligence agencies like NICA and those from the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) and the Philippine National Police (PNP) never implicated him.

Sotto practically called Batalla and Guerrero liars, telling this columnist he has the letter from NICA Director-General Alex Monteagudo identifying all the alleged agricultural smugglers and their protectors. This was the basis for his exposé, the outgoing Senate head said.

*      *      *

Guerrero came to the customs bureau through the military mindset of former President Rodrigo “Digong” Duterte, who appointed retired military generals to sensitive government posts.

Digong’s rationale was that former military officers were good subordinates and therefore could be trusted.

Guerrero, a retired AFP chief of staff, was preceded at customs by Isidro Lapeña, retired PNP general, and former Marine Corps Capt. Nicanor Faeldon.

Both Lapeña and Faeldon were yanked out in disgrace due to the smuggling of drugs through the two Manila international ports.

Several years ago, Digong was to have replaced Guerrero with a businessman from Davao, William Lima, because of unabated smuggling.

Digong’s plan to sack Guerrero did not push through. Why, only the then president had the reason.

*      *      *

The plan by a newly elected senator to call for the revival of the Senate investigation into the gross overpricing of medical supplies at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic last year should be supported by his peers.

Imagine, an undercapitalized company, Pharmally Pharmaceutical Corp., selling to the government P12 billion in COVID-19 supplies that they reportedly bought from China for several million pesos!

One of those involved in the deal is presidential crony Michael Yang. It’s possible that other people very close to then President Digong were involved in the economic sabotage.

While the people were scrounging for food and dying, the COVID-19 crooks were laughing all the way to the bank.

A very reliable source told me that one of the Senate colleagues of the neophyte solon who proposed the probe was also involved big time.

The senator’s name might surface if the investigation digs deeper.

*      *      *

One of Mr. Duterte’s legacies is the way he instilled respect and fear of the law in criminal elements, especially those who dealt in drugs.

Millions of small-time drug pushers sought other livelihoods, fearing they would be next in a long line to the cemetery.

However, drug traffic continues to flourish because the big fish are friendly with some high police officials and politicians.

Had Digong targeted the big fish and their protectors in high places instead of the small fry, the illegal drug trafficking trade would have been greatly minimized or on its way to being extinguished.

Mr. Duterte’s iron hand in dealing with the drug problem would have been much appreciated even by bleeding hearts in the international community.

If I knew Digong, he would never tolerate corruption among his close subordinates, but these were the very people who destroyed his plan to clean up the Augean stables.

In his retirement years he will realize that people close to him were the ones who sabotaged his “clean and honest government” agenda.

They made billions in office while Duterte was not looking or busy running the ship of state.

*      *      *

President Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos, BBM for short, has inherited a headache with the attempt to close Rappler, a news website, since he will get all the bashing from the international community.

Unless BBM revokes the order of the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) he will soon become a pariah in the free world.

Maria Ressa, Rappler’s chief executive officer or CEO, is a Nobel Peace prize awardee.

No matter how much explaining the government will give for the closure of Rappler, people here and abroad will perceive it as stifling the constitutional freedom of the press and of expression.

The constitutional prohibition of foreigners holding shares in local publication is shot full of holes as several news outlets also receive support from foreign entities or their dummies.

Truth be told, it’s hard to maintain big news outlets without support from outside because rich Filipinos abhor the press or media.

How ironic that SEC should close down Rappler which could have exposed one of its officials who has enriched himself and built a mansion in his hometown.

BUREAU OF CUSTOMS

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