By Arjay L. Balinbin and
Camille Aguinaldo Reporters
PRESIDENT RODRIGO R. Duterte on Thursday fired on the spot all Bureau of Customs (BoC) officials and moved controversial Customs Commissioner Isidro S. Lapeña to the Technical Education and Skills Development Authority (TESDA).
Mr. Duterte made this abrupt announcement during the celebration of the 117th anniversary of the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) in Manila on Thursday afternoon, Oct. 25.
He also appointed Maritime Industry Authority (Marina) Administrator and former Armed Forces chief Rey Leonardo “Jagger” B. Guerrero as Mr. Lapeña’s replacement at the embattled bureau, amid the controversy over the P6.8-billion shabu shipment last August.
“Out lahat (everybody), to the last man. Commissioners, department heads, the entire— they are out,” Mr. Duterte said by way of relieving all Customs officials.
He added: “Now… General Lapeña will move to TESDA. I will promote you to a Cabinet member position. General Jagger Guerrero, you are to move to the Bureau of Customs.”
“Is Jagger here? I know that you are reluctant….I know that you are happy there and you are contented….But the demands of public service and the need for honest men require your presence there.”
The President said he will look for Mr. Guerrero’s replacement at the Marina.
He told Mr. Guerrero that the current personnel of BoC “are on floating status,” and “maybe (he) can utilize military men.”
He added it is up to Mr. Guerrero to select new Customs officials. “I leave it up to you. Trabaho mo ‘yan (That is your job).”
“Maybe, kung anong unit diyan sa (whichever unit in the) military or navy, you can select them,” he added.
The President also warned all government officials anew that corruption is something that he is “passionate about.”
In a press briefing at Malacañang on Thursday morning, Mr. Lapeña said he had no plans to leave his post despite his admission that the four magnetic lifters discovered at a warehouse in Cavite last August may have contained shabu or methamphetamine hydrochloride as claimed by the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency (PDEA).
He said he “still has a lot to do” in the BoC. “Well, the President placed me there to accomplish a job, a mission, and that is to stop corruption and increase revenue collection. And I have been delivering and I still have to do a lot para ma-accomplish iyong mission na iyan (to accomplish that mission),” he said.
Mr. Lapeña has denied PDEA’s claims that the magnetic lifters found in Cavite contained illegal drugs, but he said the presentation of Public Works and Highways Director for the Bureau of Equipment Toribio Noel L. Ilao at the House of Representatives last Wednesday changed his mind.
Also on Thursday morning, PDEA Director General Aaron N. Aquino reestimated the shabu allegedly concealed in the said lifters to P11 billion from P6.8 billion. “‘Yung aking estimate doon sa una na P6.8 billion, maliit pala ‘yon kung ibabase natin doon sa re-weighing na ginawa namin (My 6.8 billion estimate is small if we base it on the re-weighing that we recently did.),” he said at a forum in San Juan City.
When sought for comment during the Palace briefing, Mr. Lapeña contradicted Mr. Aquino’s estimate.
“I don’t know if the P11 billion was taken, but of course it’s coming from PDEA. If we will just…look at the four empty containers, that will not, hindi iyon magreresulta ng (that will not result in) 11 billion….But we take that very seriously, that is why we have to concentrate our efforts in going after the drug syndicate and going after itong mga (these) shipments na nakalusot (that slipped past inspection),” he said.
Also on Thursday, the Senate and the Department of Justice said former customs agent Jimmy S. Guban, whom Mr. Duterte has ordered arrested, will be handed over to the National Bureau of Investigation after the Senate ends its inquiry on the shabu shipment.
“We are a co-equal branch of government. Congress is a co-equal branch, the President is another co-equal branch, the judiciary is a co-equal branch. And with all due respect to the President, if I heard him correctly, we cannot turn over Mr. Guban right away because we’re still continuing the hearings,“ Senator Richard J. Gordon said.
The chairman of the Blue-Ribbon Committee, which is investigating the shabu shipment, Mr. Gordon said he has already consulted the matter with Senate President Vicente C. Sotto III.
“Although I am in constant in touch with the Department of Justice (DoJ), this is a serious case that involves a lot of personalities doing heavy drug smuggling,” he added.
The senator will also push for Mr. Guban and his family’s admission to DoJ’s Witness Protection Program (WPP) before he would turn him over to the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) and the Philippine National Police (PNP). He added he has already submitted a provisional report or a chairman’s report on the issue to Mr. Sotto and Justice Secretary Menardo I. Guevarra.
Mr. Gordon has set the next hearing on Oct. 30. The House of Representatives is also conducting its own inquiry on the controversy.
Confirming Mr. Gordon, Mr. Guevarra said, “Mr. Guban shall also be considered for coverage under the witness protection program (WPP), upon full compliance with all the requirements under the WPP law.”
“The NBI, on the other hand, will conduct further investigation on the basis of the Senate committee report, and file the appropriate complaints as the evidence will warrant,” he added.
Muntinlupa Rep. Rozzano Rufino B. Biazon on Thursday pushed for the modernization of the Bureau of Customs in light of the House hearing on the alleged smuggling of the P6.8-billion worth of illegal drugs.
Mr. Biazon said in a statement the panels’ findings “should now compel the Bureau of Customs to embark on a program to upgrade its capabilities on non-intrusive inspection of cargo using x-ray machines.”
The remarks followed the fourth deliberation by the Committees on Dangerous Drugs and Good Government and Public Accountability on the four magnetic lifters found in Cavite on Aug. 8, allegedly used to contain illegal drugs.
Mr. Biazon cited three factors that have allowed smuggling to continue, particularly in the unsupervised use of the X-ray units, accessibility of data, and difficulty in auditing.
“First is the stand alone system of the x-ray units where only one to two persons are able to view the scanned images, perform image analysis and produce findings of either clear or not clear to release a shipment,” he said.
“Second is the apparent vulnerability of the data collected by the scanning equipment to unauthorized access, copying, download or tampering.”
“The difficulty was admitted by BOC X-ray Inspection Project officer John Mar Morales who said that while it is possible to audit, it is currently difficult for them to do it because of lack of knowledge,” Mr. Biazon also said. — with Vann Marlo M. Villegas and Charmaine A. Tadalan