PRESIDENT Rodrigo R. Duterte is putting soldiers in key positions at the Bureau of Customs, which has reeled from revelations of a record estimated P11 billion worth of methamphetamine that slipped through the country’s ports.
Asked on this latest development at the bureau, which last week saw a change at the helm, business leaders said they would watch if it would improve transactions at the ports.
“… I’d like to put on notice everybody in the Bureau of Customs [that] they are all floating status,” Mr. Duterte said in a speech in Davao City on Sunday night.
“… Customs police are also on floating status, everybody. The Customs Intelligence Unit, they are to report to Malacañang — all of them. I am ordering everybody to report to my office,” he added, recalling that he ordered newly installed Customs Commissioner Rey Leonardo B. Guerrero, a former armed forces chief-of-staff and administrator of the Maritime Industry Authority, to ask the bureau’s X-ray provider to train the military’s technical specialists to operate the equipment.
“They (current Customs staff) will be replaced all — all of them — by military men. It will be a takeover of the Armed Forces… while we are sorting out how to effectively meet the challenges of corruption in this country… Almost all of them there have… in one way or the other been charged of corruption,” Mr. Duterte continued, explaining that the government “cannot just dismiss them.”
“And yet we cannot just move on because we want to be lawfully correct so dahan-dahan lang tayo (we will have to proceed carefully)… But with this kind of games that they are playing, dirty games, I am forced now to ask the Armed Forces to take over.”
The president said he was taking this step as part of his “declaration of a state of lawlessness” at the start of his term in mid 2016, with “part of the lawless elements are there inside the Bureau of Customs.”
In a statement, the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) said it “has taken cognizance of the directive of the President to support the Bureau of Customs (BoC) in the performance of its mandate”.
The AFP said its chief-of-staff (CSAFP), General Carlito G. Galvez, Jr., and Defense Secretary Deflin N. Lorenzana have agreed “that the AFP personnel to be assigned to the BoC will be [on] temporary duty”.
“The CSAFP has ordered the staff at the General Headquarters to immediately constitute a contingent from the Army, Air Force, and the Navy/Marines for such ad interim detail at the bureau,” the statement read.
“Said personnel should be of unquestionable integrity, of good repute, of known competency and professionalism. Such capability will be in, but not limited to, intelligence, technical expertise and support, and operations.”
In Malacañang, Presidential Spokesperson Salvador S. Panelo said during a press briefing that the AFP’s takeover of functions at the BoC “will be temporary” and “will only run until necessary.”
“We saw him, we heard him, he’s disgusted with what happened that’s why he’s asking the AFP to help,” Mr. Panelo said.
Asked on the legal basis of the President’s order, Mr. Panelo replied: “The Constitution provides that the President has control over the military and government offices. He is authorized to direct the movements of the AFP.”
Of new Customs chief Guerrero, Mr. Panelo said: “He’s competent. He (Mr. Duterte) trusts him and his experience seems to indicate that he could be a very good… chief of the graft-ridden bureau.”
Justice Secretary Menardo I. Guevarra said separately that the “temporary measure” to staff the BoC with soldiers does not violate the “civilian supremacy” enshrined in the Constitution.
“Putting the Bureau of Customs under the watchful eye of the AFP is a temporary measure to ensure that massive entry of illegal drugs, which threatens public safety, is immediately stopped,” he told reporters in a text message.
“Violate civilian supremacy rule? Certainly not, because the BoC chief is a civilian; the BoC is under the DoF (Department of Finance); and the DoF is under the President”.
He also added that the president “has the power of supervision and control over the entire Executive Dept(artment) and is duty-bound to ensure that all laws be faithfully executed”, hence, “civilian rule shall at all times be supreme.”
Article II, Section 3 of the 1987 Philippine Constitution states that “civilian authority is, at all times, supreme over the military.”
But opposition lawmakers were not convinced.
Senators Leila M. De Lima, Risa N. Hontiveros-Baraquel and Francis N. Pangilinan on Monday questioned the legality of Mr. Duterte’s latest move, warning that it may have been unconstitutional.
“It normalizes the unconstitutional act of granting the military civilian functions and power over civilian offices,” Ms. De Lima said in a statement.
“He should stop treating the military as his personal troubleshooting department. He cannot call on the the military each and every time he is facing problems in governance. He should leave the military out of unconstitutional exercises,” Ms. Baraquel said in a statement.
“The solution is not in the transfer of any agency but showing that incompetent officials and the syndicates they are in connivance with — all big fish — are punished and held to account,” Mr. Pangilinan said in a statement.
For Senator Panfilo M. Lacson: “I can only suggest that continuous, dedicated, focused, highly-classified and sophisticated counter-intelligence operations should be put in place to watch the watchdogs”, noting in a statement that putting retired military officers at the bureau’s helm in the past did not necessarily improve performance.
Sought for comment, business leaders generally welcomed this latest step in Customs, but were cautious on how it would affect transactions in the country’s ports.
In a mobile phone message on Tuesday, American Chamber of Commerce of the Philippines, Inc. Senior Adviser John D. Forbes noted that the development comes at a time of “importing peak period in November”.
“We welcome all reforms that reduce smuggling of illegal and underpaid goods. But exporters also need goods to flow smoothly since local materials are very insufficient and foreign markets need to receive orders on time,” Mr. Forbes said.
“We will need to understand what changes will result from the president’s announcement when more details are known.”
Philippine Exporters Confederation, Inc. President Sergio R. Ortiz-Luis, Jr. said Mr. Duterte was “obviously showing his will to clean up the Customs.”
At the same time, Mr. Ortiz-Luis said in a telephone interview that his “worry about the military, baka walang (they may not have) business [sense]…”
For the Philippine Chamber of Commerce of Industry (PCCI) President Ma. Alegria Sibal-Limjoco, Mr. Duterte’s move on the bureau “is a good start”, while Semiconductor & Electronics Industries in the Philippines Foundation, Inc. President Danilo C. Lachica who said he was “indifferent” to the use of soldiers for Customs work as long as they “are men of integrity.”
“We [expect] ease of doing business and expect no corruption,” Mr. Lachica said in a mobile phone message.”
Mr. Panelo said in the news briefing in Malacañang that “[t]here is no stoppage of services at the BoC.”
“There will be continuity… Definitely, walang pangamba (there should be no concern).”
The Bureau of Customs under former commissioner Isidro S. Lapeña, who last week was transferred to head the Technical Education and Skills Development Authority, raised P434.6 billion as of September, up 34% from the P323.8 billion in 2017’s comparative nine months, beating its P417.5 billion target by four percent.
September was the eighth consecutive month that the bureau topped its monthly targets.
The bureau’s nine-month revenues are equivalent to 74.76% of a P581.29-billion full-year target.
The bureau’s collections were also 20.58% of the P2.11-trillion overall state revenues recorded in the January-September period, and 22.93% of the P1.90-trillion tax revenues that grew 16% year-on-year. — Arjay L. Balinbin, Janina C. Lim, Vann M. Villegas, Camille A. Aguinaldo and Elijah J. C. Tubayan