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Opinion

Customs, agriculture bigwigs avoiding Congress hearings

GOTCHA - Jarius Bondoc - The Philippine Star

Summon Customs and Agriculture chiefs. Subpoena full records. Require video proofs of smashing of smuggled foods. Swear attendees to truth. Televise hearings.

Lawmakers must show teeth in probing agricultural smuggling and hoarding. Niceties don’t get answers. Prices are skyrocketing and supplies dwindling of onions, vegetables, sugar, eggs and meats.

From posted farmgate rates, producers obviously aren’t the culprits. Consumers can’t be officiously insulted to “buy by the piece if you can’t afford a kilo.” Market vendors shouldn’t be jailed for modest markups beyond “suggested” retail prices.

“Why hasn’t Customs Commissioner Yogi Ruiz attended any of our agri-smuggling hearings?” Sen. Imee Marcos wondered Monday, Jan. 16. Ruiz was in Batangas personally examining contraband sugar. Low in the totem pole, Asst. Comm. Vincent Maronilla tried to explain matters like lack of intelligence and investigation of long exposed traffickers. Although a lateral transferee from the Drug Enforcement Agency, it’s Ruiz who must answer.

Ruiz was also a no-show at the Jan. 23 hearing of the House ways and means committee on agri-smuggling. On training in Japan, he was also absent the next day at the agriculture and food committee inquiry on the nine-fold increase in onion prices. It had to be canceled.

Agriculture Senior Undersecretary Domingo Panganiban has been snubbing invitations. As self-appointed agriculture secretary, President Marcos Jr. cannot be called to the co-equal Congress.

Panganiban’s seniority in rank and age – 83 – presupposes knowledge of all department works. To him report 75 under- and assistant secretaries, bureau, subsidiary and regional heads.

Having himself represented by a USec seconded from NEDA and a spokesman wasted Congress time. “Marcos Jr. must appoint a permanent secretary” with time and expertise, Sen. Grace Poe stated.

Their absenteeism leaves wrong policies and poor planning un-scrutinized, Senators Koko Pimentel and Nancy Binay noted. Rep. Nicanor Briones, Agricultural Sector Alliance party, recalled that former secretary William Dar had also boycotted Congress hearings. Congress’ oversight function is blunted. Inadequate investigations cannot aid legislation.

Issues merit congressional scrutiny:

• Absence of photos or videos of destruction of smuggled fresh foods, along with reports on venue, date and witnesses.

Subpoena duces tecum will compel Customs to submit those legal requirements. Burying is a must for contraband foods without sanitary/phytosanitary inspection certificates. SPSICs protect consumers from toxins and E. coli, and farms from infestations like weevil, African swine fever, bird flu.

• Sudden transfer last Jan. 17 of the X-ray Inspection Project to the Office of the Commissioner from the Deputy for Intelligence.

Vital in detecting contraband, XIP should be under Intelligence or Enforcement for efficiency, check and balance. Last time it was placed under the commissioner, tons of shabu slipped past Customs at Manila International Container Port inside magnetic lifters, 2017 and interspersed with sacks of tapioca, 2018.

• Customs decides whether or not to charge a smuggler with economic sabotage.

Such discretion must be removed, said Sen. Cynthia Villar, agriculture committee head. Customs merely inserted it in the Implementing Rules and Regulations of the 2016 Anti-Agricultural Smuggling Act. Deemed as heinous, nonbailable life-term offense is smuggling of at least P1 million in vegetables, sugar, poultry, pork or P10 million in rice.

From Customs press releases, two repeat offenders are Frankie Trading Enterprises and Primex Export-Import Producer. Four times last July they sneaked into Cagayan de Oro 22 cargo containers of onions, each worth P3 million, over the threshold amount for economic sabotage. No indictment. Contrabands were condemned. No photo/video of the destruction. Worse, at least six containers were brought out of Customs in September and retailed in Davao and Surigao.

• Demand and supply miscalculations.

DA bureaus for plant, animal, fish and aquatic resources must improve data gathering on consumption and harvest. As well, on owners and contents of cold storages. If owners are also hoarders, importers and smugglers, then that’s proof of cartels, said Rep. Joey Salceda, ways and means chairman.

Misinformed on available stocks, Marcos Jr. first rejected then hurriedly imported sugar and onion. Misinformed again on the timing, he imported right when cane and onion growers were harvesting. Plummet of farmgate rates bankrupted them.

• Poor monitoring of food types and volumes that enjoy special low duties till end-2023.

Briones cited pork, for which President Duterte slashed duties to only 15-25 percent to lower consumer prices and offset the ASF epidemic. Technical smuggling ensued. Of 710,000 tons in 2022, only 300,000 were correctly declared as pork. More than 410,000 tons were mis-declared as offal (innards, tongue, cheek, brain), extenders not for public retail, subject to only 2 percent duty. “Unsatisfied with the lower 15-25 percent duty, importers-smugglers lied to enjoy only 2 percent, yet sold their contraband at high pork rates,” Briones said.

• Customs and DA resist revival of a Malacañang-level anti-smuggling task force that includes industry leaders.

Amendments must be enacted to form such a task force for food, medicines, electronics, apparel, construction materials, etc. PNP, NBI, ISAFP, PDEA will assign crack teams in support.

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Follow me on Facebook: https://tinyurl.com/Jarius-Bondoc

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