More seized onions being sold: A decoy for bigger smuggling

GOTCHA - Jarius Bondoc - The Philippine Star

Smuggled onions supposedly seized by Customs in northeastern Mindanao were sold not only in Davao City. New documents obtained by GOTCHA show that part of the contraband reached Surigao del Norte earlier. Attempts were made to ship it to Tacloban in eastern Visayas.

The stink involves three regions. But it can be a mere decoy, said a Malacañang official familiar with trafficking. Distractions accompany the entry of bigger contraband. The Palace has been informed of a scheme involving 1,700 cargo containers of illegal agricultural produce. Some of the containers are already in Manila.

Agriculture Department fieldmen in Mindanao interdicted 12,000 kilos of smuggled onions in land transit. They alerted Customs counterparts in the Caraga Region. The latter apparently were unaware that Customs officers in Cagayan de Oro International Port, in adjacent Region X, had let contraband be sneaked out of custody.

Details are in a Sept. 5 memo of Bureau of Plant Industry regional manager Rayme Ladao to Customs-Surigao City district collector Jonah Herbert Dollano:

“BPI-Plant Quarantine Service-Region 13 (Caraga) ha[s] intercepted and confiscated fresh yellow onions total[ing] 12,000 kilos from Cagayan de Oro City. Said consignment was believed to be smuggled since the shipper cannot present any legal documents. Per memorandum dated Aug. 12, 2022 from our Director [Gerald Glenn Panganiban], there is no Sanitary/Phytosanitary Import Clearance for fresh yellow and red onions.

“The consignment was transported Sept. 3 via Lipata Ferry Terminal to Tacloban City. It was apprehended and returned to origin; however, today Sept. 5, the shipment was transferred to different vehicle and was attempted to cross Visayas Island via Surigao Baseport. Our inspector there alerted the Port Police to disallow loading onto the vessel.

“We seek your recommendation/actions on this matter.”

Customs-CdO had seized 22 40-footer cargo containers of Chinese onion on July 7, 19, 22 and 29. Mis-declared as butter and spring roll patty, all were consigned to Frankie Trading Enterprises and Primex Export-Import Producer, Customs Manila central office announced. A container carries up to 28,000 kilos. With each container valued at P3 million, total catch was P66 million.

CdO District Collector Elvira Cruz confiscated the shipments. Acting Customs Commissioner Yogi Ruiz, in press releases from Manila headquarters, trumpeted the accomplishments.

Documents, videos and photos earlier provided to GOTCHA dwell on the July 22 seizure of seven containers. A committee condemned the onions on Aug. 20, since there was no BPI Sanitary/Phytosanitary Import Clearance. A condemnator was contracted to crush and bury the onions. But instead of doing so, the condemnator transferred the contents of six containers to wing vans on Sept. 18 and marketed them in Davao City. His identity is in Customs records.

BPI-Region-10 supervising agriculturist Manuel Barradas warned: “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.”

Yellow onion retails for P600 a kilo. Thus, the contents of the six containers had a market value of P100.8 million.

Now it turns out that part of the earlier seizures had also been taken out of Customs for sale in Caraga and Tacloban five days ahead. The 12,000 intercepted kilos had a market value of P7.2 million. Agri-smuggling is done in cahoots with crooked Customs officials, then-Senate president Tito Sotto said in investigative hearings in April-June.

Requesting anonymity for now, the Malacañang source shared info on the 1,700 containers in transit and already at the piers:

• The China produce were contracted in February at P50:$1. With the peso devalued 20 percent since then, the importer is demanding that the suppliers charge him 20 percent less too. Rejected by the former, he threatens to have his cargoes “abandoned,” for confiscation by Customs.

• Customs will then auction the abandoned wares. Front men of the importer will be made to win the rigged low bidding. Regaining the contraband, he will then sell high. Victims will be consumers and domestic producers. Government will lose revenues.

• Division of proceeds: for every five containers, three will go to the importer, two to Customs accomplices.

Word reached the Malacañang source that a high Customs official fumed at GOTCHA’s exposé last Wednesday of the recycled onions. That shows insincerity, the Palace insider said.

“He should even be thankful for the free intelligence tip you gave in your column,” the source added. “He did not have to spend his intel and confidential budget to learn the modus operandi in CdO. If he knows what he’s doing, he should get the condemnator’s identity from Customs files. Also, the officers and guards on duty when the contraband was sneaked out. Then make them talk.”

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