A PHILIPPINE senator on Tuesday flagged “government-sponsored” smuggling of 260 containers of sugar that arrived in the country before their allowed date of entry.

“On Feb. 9, a shipment of sugar in 260 20-foot containers arrived in the port of Batangas,” Senator Ana Theresia “Risa” N. Hontiveros-Baraquel told reporters, citing producer organizations whose information was corroborated by independent sources.

“If we follow Sugar Order 6, the earliest possible date for imported sugar to enter the Philippines is March 1, 2023,” she added.

Ms. Hontiveros filed a resolution asking the blue ribbon committee to investigate the shipment, noting that import orders might be prone to abuse.

The shipment appears to have been confirmed by a letter from the Department of Agriculture to the Bureau of Customs on Feb. 14, the lawmaker said.

The registered importer had used three shipping firms to transport the imported sugar, she added.

“Can a sugar order be retroactive to cover shipments that arrived before its effectivity date and before the notice of award allocation?” Ms. Hontiveros asked.

“If the answer is no, then sugar shipments that arrived must be confiscated immediately as smuggled sugar and its importers blacklisted and criminally charged with violation of the Anti-Agricultural Smuggling Act,” she added.

The Presidential Communications Office did not immediately reply to a Viber message seeking comment.

The Sugar Regulatory Administration and Customs bureau also did not immediately respond to separate text messages sent to their representatives for comments.

Ms. Hontiveros said these shipments could not have come from allocations in earlier sugar orders since the latest required that volumes arrive no later than Nov. 15.

“And since they are also not covered by Sugar Order 6, which has been awarding the allocation since Feb. 24, there is no other conclusion but to say that these sugar shipments were smuggled.”

The senator said the 260 containers of sugar were not only shipped without authority from the Sugar Regulatory Authority, but were also brought in through the Super Green Lane system of the Bureau of Customs (BoC), “where a shipment gets the VIP treatment as it goes through Customs and out of the port.” 

It also allows papers to be processed within two weeks, she said.

“Unless there was a misdeclaration by the shipper, the Bureau of Customs is supposed to have known that sugar was inside those 260 containers,” Ms. Hontiveros said. “So it is clearly contraband and the BoC should not be confused that it is indeed smuggled sugar.”

The senator also questioned the Agriculture department’s broad discretion over the sugar imports.

“The Department of Agriculture can approve seemingly any amount of allocation without any restriction,” she said. “There appears to be no criteria, no ceiling, no formula with which to determine how allocation is given to each importer.”

“It is then technically possible to just give the allocations to three favored importers,” she added. “It looks like this is what occurred in this case.” — Alyssa Nicole O. Tan