Whole of government must fight smuggling

COMMONSENSE - Marichu A. Villanueva - The Philippine Star

Government authorities credit much the military’s succeeding to reduce the communist ranks in the countryside to the “whole of government” approach. If this is the solution that can be done, will somebody issue the same call to action to put a lid – once and for all – to the unabated smuggling activities in our country?

We finally got to hear this from Philippine Ports Authority (PPA) general manager Jay Daniel Santiago who issued this call to action against smuggling during our Kapihan sa Manila Bay news forum last Wednesday. A lawyer by profession, the PPA chief is among the heads of the various government agencies enforcing border control measures in all the entry and exit points in our entire country.

This is not to mention law enforcement arms of the government that also run after smugglers from the Philippine National Police (PNP), the Armed Forces of the Philippines, the Philippine Coast Guard, among them.

The PPA, along with the Maritime Industry Authority (Marina), including the supervision of all airports all around the country are all border control agencies under the Department of Transportation (DOTr). Santiago clarified though it is not the mandate of the PPA to go after smuggling. However, he urged, guarding against such kind of illegal entry and exit of goods and people must be “a whole of government” work on daily basis.

As of last count, there are 130 seaport terminals all around the Philippines.

According to Santiago, the PPA supervises all of these seaport terminals from the tip of the country in Basco, Batanes up north all the way down to the southern borders of the Philippine sea in Sulu and Tawi-tawi. Likewise, Santiago cited, the PPA keeps in check all entries and exit of goods and people from the smallest one in Basco seaport to the biggest ones like the Manila International Container Terminal (MICT) in the South Harbor and in North Harbor; the Batangas Port Terminal; the Port of Matnog in Sorsogon; Tagbilaran seaport in Bohol; Cebu seaports for the Visayas; Cagayan de Oro City and Davao as major seaports in Mindanao.

For enforcement functions, the PPA chief cited, the agency has police powers. The PPA employs 140 or so uniformed port policemen, each carrying body camera and beefed up by private security guards as the “force multipliers” to secure both passengers and cargoes going in and out in all seaport terminals.

“Because the anti-smuggling campaign is not just the monopoly by the Bureau of Customs but they need the help of the entire government,” Santiago pointed out.

Aside from the Customs Bureau, Santiago pointed to other “frontline” government agencies that are supposed to be watchdogs against smuggling activities. These include the Department of Agriculture (DA), the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI), and Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR). Incidentally, these are the same government agencies comprising the nine PPA Board members which also include the National Economic Development Authority (NEDA); and a private sector representative.

Santiago averred the PPA has been doing its share in “whole-of-government” approach to combat smuggling, especially of agricultural products. Through the aid of modern technology, the PPA chief explained, the agency has been steeped into digitalization programs to improve efficiency of government services and remove areas of corruption. One such PPA program is the now the controversial Trusted Operator Program-Container Registry and Monitoring System (TOP-CRMS).

The program though is “not designed as anti-smuggling,” Santiago admitted. However, he believes this program has the capability to generate information” that could help go after and deter smuggling activities.

Approved in June, 2021 by the PPA Board under Administrative Order 04, the TOP-CRMS program got underway. In competitive public bidding, a local entity Shiptech Solutions Corp. won and was awarded in March last year the P900 million technology supply contract to implement the TOP-CRMS. Subsequently, the nine-man PPA Board – chaired then by DOTr Secretary Arturo Tugade and co-chaired by the PPA chief – gave the go-signal for the drafting of the operational guidelines to implement the TOP-CRMS program at no cash outlay from the government.

As designed, Santiago explained, the TOP-CRMS will install and use a digital tracking system to exactly locate the whereabouts of the container cargoes in real time. Through this digital technology tracking system, cargo diversion to another warehouse, one of the notorious schemes of smugglers, will be quickly and easily detected.

Hence, this will enable government authorities to identify and prosecute suspected smugglers. Furthermore, Santiago added, this will prevent the incidence of losses and eliminate the existing container security deposit, a cost imposed to importers and shippers ranging from amounts of P10,000 up to P30,000 per container.

The TOP-CRMS will charge a much lesser amount and standard fee of P980 for container monitoring. As such, Santiago calculated, importers would spend just P1.08 billion, or 95 percent less, for the container deposit of 1.1 million containers per year that go through the PPA.

However, when the TOP-CRMS suddenly become too controversial, the PPA Board decided in their monthly meeting held last Jan.25 to defer action on it. Five of the PPA Board, or majority members voted to defer it pending “thorough study” purportedly upon instructions from Malacanang. This came after big business groups have joined forces together in publishing an “open letter” asking President Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr. to suspend the implementation and look into the questioned TOP-CRMS program.

Though communists and left-leaning groups strongly resist it, the National Task Force to End Local Armed Conflict continues with success in its “whole of government” approach against insurgency-infested areas. But those a -- holes in government apparently in cahoots, or in bed with smugglers are giving the same “hard push back” on this PPA program.


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