Drugs and 'tara': What we know about Customs mess

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, October 11) — Investigations into a multi-billion shabu smuggling have opened a can of worms, including corruption allegations against two members of the presidential family.

Hearings at the Senate and the House of Representatives revealed that the entry of 604 kilos of shabu worth ₱6.4 billion last May was facilitated by corrupt Customs officials and fixers.

Deep-seated corruption happens in the form of a "tara" system, where Bureau of Customs (BOC) officials are being paid off to let shipments through.

Presidential son Vice Mayor Paolo Duterte has been accused of peddling influence at the BOC, together with his brother-in-law Mans Carpio and several other Customs employees and aliases who are members of the so-called "Davao Group."

Here's what we know about the controversies hounding the Bureau of Customs.

How shipment entered PH

It all started with the ₱6.4 billion-shabu shipment, one of the biggest hauls of smuggled drugs in the country, passing through the BOC on May 17.

Duties and taxes were paid on May 18. The shipment was released the same day without further inspection since it passed through the Customs' so-called express "green lane."

The 604 bags of shabu were hidden in five solid steel cylinders used in printing presses, each a foot in diameter.

LOOK: How ₱6.4B-worth of shabu was shipped from China to PH

It took the BOC more than a week to discover the unhampered entry of drugs, which were delivered to warehouses in Valenzuela City on May 24.

On the evening of May 25, a Customs official from Xiamen, China alerted the BOC about the shipment of an undetermined quantity of illegal drugs from China. He is Zhang Xiaohui, director of the General Administration of China Customs' International Enforcement Cooperation Division of the Anti-Smuggling Bureau.

The intelligence information reached Customs Intelligence and Investigation Service (CIIS) director Neil Estrella at around 11 p.m. on May 25.

Estrella said he immediately informed then Customs Commissioner Nicanor Faeldon, who ordered him to reach out to Filipino-Chinese businessman Richard Tan, whom Chinese Customs said was the tipster.

Key players

Tan, who owned the Hong Fei Logistics warehouse where the drugs were found, told a different story.

He said he first called the BOC, not the other way around. That's after he received a call from Wang Xi Dong of China Customs Police.

"Mr. Wang told me that the five insulator machines contained illegal drugs and that the shipper in China had already been arrested by Chinese authorities," Tan said in his affidavit.

Chinese Customs said Tan was innocent.

"The owner is helping us but (he is) nervous. Please contact him and promise that you will not punish him and protect him. He will inform you the detailed address of (the) warehouse," Zhang said. This message was among the documents the BOC submitted to the House and Senate.

In the Philippines, only Fidel Anoche Dee, caretaker of the warehouse, was arrested and charged over the shabu shipment, three months after the drugs were discovered.

On August 14, the National Bureau of Investigation also filed drug charges against Tan, Dee, and other Chinese and Taiwanese businessmen involved in the shipment: Dong Yi Shen (alias Kenneth Dong), Li Guang Feng (alias Manny Li), Chen I. Myin, and Jhu Minh Jyun.

During the hearings, Tan and Li vehemently denied knowing that the shipment contained illegal drugs. They also could not say who had them shipped from China. Kenneth Dong also said the packing list sent to him by Li did not disclose the shipment contained steel cylinders.

READ: Duterte gives PDEA lead role in drug war

Filipino players are also facing charges: Customs fixer Mark Taguba, who allegedly arranged for the shipment's release along with licensed broker Teejay Marcellana, Eirene May Tatad, owner of import company EMT Trading.

Thirty-one-year-old Tatad, a licensed teacher, said she worked with Taguba in exchange of a ₱1,500 fee per container. Marcellana got ₱500 per container.

Taguba repeatedly denied that the shipment came from his containers.

What BOC did wrong

Lawmakers have criticized the BOC for failing to issue alert orders for the shabu shipment.

Although the shipment was declared as kitchenware, Senator Ping Lacson pointed out there were enough grounds to hold the release of the shipment: it came from China, and its importer, EMT Trading had only one owner, and was relatively new in the customs brokerage business.

Resigned Customs Commissioner Nicanor Faeldon was also slammed for centralizing the power to issue alerts on the Command Center (ComCen).

Customs Commissioner Isidro Lapeña abolished the ComCen on August 31, shortly after replacing Faeldon.

The BOC was also slammed for other irregularities, including the conduct of dawn raids and seizure of shabu from two Valenzuela warehouses on May 26, without coordinating with the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency, as required by law.

Customs officials are either incompetent or corrupt for letting the shipment through, Senate Blue Ribbon Committee Chairman Richard Gordon said during the first hearing on July 31.

'Tara' system

The "tara" or payoff system is widely practiced at the BOC, Taguba said as he admitted paying off Customs officials and employees grease money to ease the release of his shipments.

Taguba said of the ₱170,000 he earns per container as a fixer, he pays off 12 Customs officers a total of ₱27,000 per container.

The highest-paid in his list is a certain "Tita Nani" from Customs' Imports and Assessment Service, whom authorities have yet to track down.

Taguba said "Tita Nani" and another fixer he identified by the alias of "Jack" mentioned the names of Paolo Duterte and Mans Carpio in a string of messages involving the peddling of influence at the bureau.

According to Taguba, "Tita Nani" instructed him to bring ₱5 million to Davao City before he could meet Paolo Duterte, but the meeting never took place.

Taguba said he gave that amount to Davao City Councilor Nilo "Small" Abellera, Jr. last Jan. 16, 2017. Abellera, the vice mayor's alleged bagman, admitted to meeting Taguba and "Jack" but denied receiving money from them. Abellera said he did not grant Taguba's request for help to meet the vice mayor.

Paolo Duterte, Carpio, and Abellera dismissed Taguba's claims as hearsay.

President Rodrigo Duterte vowed to have his son killed if allegations linking him to drugs and corruption are found to be true.

Taguba later clarified he never testified that the two were involved in the shipment of drugs into the country, but "were merely mentioned" by the "Davao Group."

Some senators earlier accused Taguba of misleading the probe through shifting the attention to the "Davao Group."

"Pilit mong kinakaila na kasama ka dun sa 604 kilos 'tas ngayon kung sinu-sino naman kinakaladkad mo. Pati 'yung kwento niyo, ligaw. Kaya nangyayari talaga naliligaw yung intent ng committee," Senate Majority Leader Tito Sotto told Taguba in an August 31 hearing.

[Translation: "You vehemently denied involvement in the 604-kilo shipment but now you are dragging names. Even your stories have no direction, so the committee's intent was also misled."]

What's next?

The Senate Blue Ribbon Committee is now recommending a lifestyle check on the President's son and son-in-law, its draft report on Tuesday showed.

The initial report also recommended the filing of criminal charges against all officers of BOC Command Center and other involved personalities.

The House Committee on Ways and Means and Committee on Dangerous Drugs in their own reports said the BOC must be abolished and replaced with a new revenue collecting system.

Gordon said his committee will try to get to the bottom of the "tara" system as alleged by Senator Ping Lacson in an August 23 privilege speech.

Citing "loud whispers" at the BOC, Lacson said Faeldon and several other officials were receiving grease money and that Faeldon received an initial "pasalubong" or welcome gift of ₱100 million.

Faeldon denied Lacson's allegations and said all the other employees accused by Lacson are innocent.

Faeldon has been detained at the office of the Senate sergeant-at-arms since September 11 for refusing to attend Senate hearings into the shabu shipment.