By Arjay L. Balinbin

PRESIDENT Rodrigo R. Duterte on Thursday said that he will be axing 64 ranking officials of the Bureau of Customs (BoC) due to their involvement in corruption.

The President made the announcement in his speech after the official signing of a $1.3-billion loan agreement for the Malolos-Clark Railway Project at the Malacañan Palace on Thursday afternoon.

“I will be dismissing 64 Customs employees. In the meantime, I want them to report here in Malacañang,” he said.

“I will be asking them to report here and, from the sources, I have cut down corruption by a third or one half. Most of them ’yung andyan (are the ones involved in corruption), we will be filing charges, 64 of them,” he added, telling reporters afterwards that they will report to Malacañang “on Monday.”

Presidential Spokesperson Salvador S. Panelo, in his press briefing at the Palace on Thursday morning, said Commissioner Rey Leonardo B. Guerrero is not among the officials who will be fired.

Ang pagkakaalam ko ay mayroong nagsumbong kay Commissioner Guerrero at inimbestigahan niya… Maraming anomalya (What I know is that someone told Commissioner Guerrero of irregularities and he investigated the tip… There are a lot of anomalies) involving certain officials,” Mr. Panelo said.

In a statement he issued late Wednesday night, Mr. Panelo said: “The President has directed the freezing of several high-ranking Customs officials and employees, whose names would be disclosed at the appropriate time, as they face administrative and criminal charges, for unlawful activities.”

“The President’s latest action underscores this Administration’s zero tolerance on corruption among erring officials. The anti-corruption campaign is continuing as it is relentless. No one will be spared,” he added.

Asked at the Palace briefing on Thursday what he meant by “freezing,” Mr. Panelo said the officials concerned are now on “floating” status. “Floating muna sila, floating, kasi they have pending administrative and criminal charges,” he explained.

Sought for comment, Mr. Guerrero replied in a mobile phone message only: “We will follow the President’s orders.”

The President named Mr. Guerrero, his former Armed Forces chief of staff, as Customs chief in October last year, instructing him to “double the zealousness” in ridding the agency of corruption.

Mr. Guerrero replaced Isidro S. Lapeña whom Mr. Duterte transferred to the Technical Education and Skills Development Authority after P11 billion worth of methamphetamine hydrochloride was found to have been allowed to leave Customs gates under his watch.

The Customs bureau has been improving collections lately, growing its take by 9.8% to P251.7 billion as of May — making it the second-biggest contributor to total state revenues behind the Bureau of Internal Revenue at a fifth in that period — from P229.3 billion in last year’s first five months

The Bureau of the Treasury, which reports the government’s monthly fiscal balance, attributed steadily improving overall revenue collections to “stringent monitoring and continuing efforts to enhance revenue-collection capabilities and intensified control measures against undervaluation, misdeclaration and other forms of technical smuggling.”

Sought for comment, Philippine Exporters Confederation, Inc. President Sergio R. Ortiz-Luis, Jr. said in a telephone interview that the firing of “corrupt” Customs officials “will facilitate business” since “corruption will go down.”

“There have been a lot of complaints [from traders]. There are horror stories even now about it. There’s a lot,” Mr. Ortiz-Luis said, noting for instance that some importers find it difficult to have their shipments released by Customs, while others are able to do so promptly. “What’s the difference?”

“This is good news to me, kung talagang corrupt ‘yung tinatanggal (if those removed from posts were really corrupt). Well… anything that brings down corruption, brings down red tape, brings down the cost and the headaches of businessmen,” Mr. Ortiz-Luis explained.

“So it is good news always.”