Senate alleges corruption and incompetence in customs bureau over biggest haul yet of shabu smuggled into PH

Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, July 31) — Lawmakers could not hide their exasperation as they investigated on Monday the alleged involvement of the Bureau of Customs (BOC)  in a shipment of shabu from China worth P6.4 billion (US$126 million).

The Senate blue ribbon committee, headed by Senator Richard Gordon is looking into possible "malfeasance, misfeasance, and nonfeasance of the officials and employees of the Bureau of Customs," it said.

"Kung hindi incompetent ang mga tao sa Customs, corrupt sila," Gordon said. (Translation:" If customs personnel are not incompetent, then they're corrupt.")

Uproar ensued over the 600-kilogram shipment of shabu or metamphetamine hydrochloride when members of the BOC and National Bureau of Investigation raided a warehouse in Valenzuela City on May 26, 2017 and discovered the contraband, customs officials at the senate hearing recounted. 

BOC: Importer's record raised red flags

The shabu, imported by a company named EMT Trading, was declared as kitchenware, Neil Estrella, head of the BOC's Customs Intelligence and Investigation Service, told the Senate hearing. He added that the shabu was discovered in 605 bags stuffed into five cylinders.

The senate committee questioned how the shipment, prior to the raid, made its way relatively unhampered on May 23 through customs' so-called express "green" lane, one of four lanes that shipments have to go through based on the record of importers registered with the bureau.

The BOC told the senate committee that it has four channels for imports:

  • a "super green" lane for multinational companies with a track record of honest business;
  • a "green" lane which needs no further investigation, X-ray, or physical inspection that it has complete and accurate documents;
  • a "yellow" lane which needs document verification;
  • and a "red" lane that makes X-ray and inspection of shipment mandatory.

Capt. Gerardo Gambala of the BOC's Command Center told the hearing  that the BOC receives up to 10,000 shipments daily and has limited ability to inspect all of these.

Earlier, Valenzuela City congressman Wes Gatchalian, in whose district the warehouse that yielded the shabu was located in, expressed alarm at how the BOC allowed the shabu to pass through the express lane, even when the cargo exceeded weight limits for the lane. In a statement, Gatchalian noted that the five cylinders were metal insulators used for printing presses. He said the cylinders, which usually weighed just 100 kilos each, weighed twice as much.

In the course of grilling customs officials, the senate committee found enough grounds to hold the release of the shipment: it originated from China, and EMT Trading--had only one owner, and was relatively new in the customs brokerage business.

"If you put a parameter that is 'new importer,' you should populate the data kung sino 'yung mga dumadating na 'new importer' by inputting their TIN (tax identification number) sir. So para pag nabasa ng system, tatamaan siya,"  Gambala said. (Translation: "...you should populate the data of who the new importers are by inputting their TIN. So the system can find them.")

"In this instance, sir, nakita namin na hindi niya nailagay sir," he added, which meant that EMT Trading, was not in the BOC database of importers. (Translation: "In this instance, sir, we saw that this was not recorded.")

Senator Panfilo Lacson, a member of the committee, pointed out the haste with which the BOC processed the importation papers for the shipment filed by EMT Trading in May 2017.

"Hindi ba dapat ni-review niyo lahat 'yung importation ng EMT? Thirteen importations na iisa ang supplier, na sunud-sunod dumating," Lacson asked. (Translation: Didn't you review all of the importations made by EMT? Thirteen importations with one supplier, which arrived one after the other.")

He asked why customs officials failed to alert other authorities, even after the initial shipment of shabu was delivered to the HongFei Logistics warehouse in Valenzuela City owned by a certain Richard Chen.

Senator Franklin Drilon said the incident clearly showed the involvement of some customs officials in the drug trade.

"Maliwang na kasabwat dito ang customs sa pagpalusot ng shipment at hindi natin alam kung ilan pa," said Drilon in the hearing. (Translation: "It's clear that customs is involved in allowing this shipment through and we don't know how many more.")

BOC commissioner assumes responsibility

At the hearing, the embattled BOC Commissioner, Capt. Nicanor Faeldon said he took full responsibility for the shipment's release.

"I will take full responsibility to every pound or kilo of shabu that comes into the country effective my assumption in July 1," Faeldon said.

Lacson then showed the hearing an alleged photo of Commissioner Faeldon with the warehouse owner Chen taken during the raid on May 26.

Faeldon said that it was him in the photo but that he had only "reluctantly agreed" to Chen's request for a photo together.

In a separate statement on Monday, Faeldon denounced what he said was a "malicious attack" to link him to the illegal drugs trade because of the photo of him with Chen which circulated in social media along with a post implicating an "outrageous" collusion between him and Chen.

"This attempt to link me in the apprehended shabu is outrageous. The photos themselves will prove that I only met Mr. Chen on the day of the raid itself," the commissioner said.

He added that he has written to the Office of the President to request it to investigate the drug shipment, in a bid to prove his innocence and clear his name.

Gordon said he wanted a hold departure order issued on Chen.

The senate hearing on the shabu shipment comes a day after a bloody crackdown by police officials in Ozamiz City of suspected narcopolitician Mayor Reynaldo Parojinog, Sr. and members of his family and staff on Sunday.

The encounter led to 15 deaths including that of the mayor. His daughter, the Vice Mayor Nova Parojinog, whose home was also included in a search warrant, was flown from Ozamiz City to Manila on Monday for inquest proceedings.

Also read: Ozamiz City Mayor, 14 others killed in police raids

Philippine National Police Chief Director General Ronald Dela Rosa on Monday in a news briefing warned of more operations against drug lords, as he urged them to surrender. The country's war on drugs has entered its second year.

PNP Chief: Ozamiz raids legitimate, no rubout of Parojinogs

The House of Representatives' Committee on Dangerous Drugs is set to hold its own hearing on August 1, Tuesday on the BOC and its links to the multi-billion peso shabu shipment.

"This is alarming. The chilling implication is that some Customs personnel, and even officers, could be in collusion  with illegal drug syndicates with billions in their pockets to buy protection from corrupt officials," Representative Robert Ace Barbers, chairman of the House Committee on Dangerous Drugs said in a statement Saturday.