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Opinion

Onion smuggling goes on against BBM’s ‘strict orders’

GOTCHA - Jarius Bondoc - The Philippine Star

Onion smuggling goes on under the very nose of the Bureau of Customs.

Seven 40-footer cargo containers were sneaked into Cagayan de Oro port last July 22. The raw white onions from China were mis-declared as other food products. Customs officers at the northern Mindanao City confiscated the contraband. Bigwigs in the Manila head office trumpeted the accomplishment.

But here’s the catch. Customs-Cagayan de Oro condemned the shipment on Aug. 20 and contracted a private condemnator. Instead of crushing, burying or incinerating the stuff, the condemnator transported and sold six container loads in Davao City on Sept. 18.

President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. has strict orders to stop agricultural smuggling. As concurrent Secretary of Agriculture, he instructed the Bureau of Plant Industry to withhold all vegetable import permits. BoC must crack down on food smugglers.

Photos and files of the contraband were provided to GOTCHA, including the condemnator’s identity.

Three containers, mis-declared as “butter/dairy spread,” was consigned to Frankie Trading Enterprises. Four, disguised as “spring roll patty,” was to Primex Export-Import Producer. Customs headquarters issued press releases about it.

Customs-CdO valued the contraband at P21 million, P3 million per cargo container. A container can carry 28,000 kilos.

White onion, controlled by cartelists, retails for P600 a kilo. The onion trafficked in Davao thus cost P16.8 million per container, or P100.8 million for the six containers.

The July 22 smuggling was the third of four that month alone by Frankie Trading and Primex. Customs reported the first on July 7, five containers of white and red onions and carrots valued at P15 million. Second was July 19, four containers of white and red onions, P12 million. Last was July 29, six containers, P18 million.

District Collector Elvira Cruz ordered their seizure. Sources could not say if all or part of those contraband were also recycled instead of destroyed.

Customs assigns seized foods for destruction to a pool of private condemnators. There was a clamor to donate the onions to charity. Customs-CdO spokesman Cris Angelo Andrade rejected it, saying the onions might be contaminated and thus hazardous to public health. “There is a BoC condemnation committee,” he told reporters July 30. “I don’t know the condemnation date.”

BPI-Region-10 supervising agriculturist Manuel Barradas explained: “We don’t know what pest and disease these might bring that would infect our other crops here in Mindanao. This would also pose human risk because we don’t know what preservatives or chemicals they used. This is a hazard to our consumers.”

Traffickers recycle through various means, mostly in cahoots with Customs. Exposed in GOTCHA 23 years ago was the doctoring of expired import permits from the Bureaus of Plant and Animal Industries, and of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources. Also exposed was the 2006 sneak-in of 100,000 kilos of diseased pork from China. Customs police diverted the contraband from the condemnation dumpsite to a food processor. Rice by the shiploads was a favorite contraband.

In April-June 2022 Congress investigated the nonstop agricultural smuggling. Then-Senate president Tito Sotto named four of 22 culprits mentioned in state intelligence reports. All had been identified in inquiries since the 2000s: Leah “Luz” Cruz, operating in CdO and Manila International Container Port; Manuel Tan, CdO, Subic, Batangas; Jun Diamante, CdO; Andrew Chang, MICP, Port of Manila, Batangas.

Hailing the CdO confiscations, Customs Acting Commissioner Yogi Ruiz said on Sept. 22 that “eliminating agri-smuggling, along with drugs and guns,” is his priority as instructed by the President. “We have a legacy to continue, one started by the previous admin. We have a good foundation in the Bureau because for the past six years, there was a strong leadership at the helm.”

The Duterte admin had three Customs chiefs, the first two removed in the wake of large-scale shabu smuggling at the Port of Manila. Formerly with the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency, Ruiz joined Customs in 2017 as director of Enforcement and Security Services. In Manila the following year, over a ton of shabu hidden in four giant magnetic lifters were sneaked past Customs into a warehouse in Cavite.

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