Advocates worried over corruption at Bureau of Customs

Germelina Lacorte / MindaNews

DAVAO CITY (MindaNews/13 Jan) – Anti-corruption advocates warned that unchecked corruption at the Bureau of Customs could loosen up the entry of illegal drugs and arms at the Davao ports.

Fr. Albert Alejo, SJ, who started the Ehem anti-corruption movement, said that if left unchecked, loosening up control at the Bureau of Customs could lead to security issues. “Once we loosen control, the illegal entry of drugs and (unlicensed) firearms will increase and this could threaten lives,” said in an anti-corruption forum organized by People’s Action Forum Against Corruption with SK leaders on Thursday.

He also regretted the government’s move to close down the privately-owned designated examination area (DEA) at the Sasa wharf, saying the idea appeared to be working in checking corruption and could still be improved on.

Lawyer Carlos Isagani Zarate, counsel for Aquarius Yards Inc. that operates the DEA until the Bureau of Customs closed it down last year, recalled how some 16 kilos of drugs were accidentally discovered inside an empty refrigerated container van when a technician came in to inspect some problems in the refrigeration system.

The incident happened in December 2009, prior to the discovery of 40 vans of imported rice misdeclared as construction filling in February last year. Aquarius’s discovery of the misdeclared goods started the owner’s feud with customs officials who eventually suspended the company’s operation as DEA at the Sasa wharf.

Alejo expressed regret over the closing of the privately-operated DEA, because it has the potential to break the perceived collusion between customs officials, brokers and importers.

“Whenever I say something, it surely sounds like I’m sourgraping,” said Aquarius Yard owner Rodolfo Reta. “But to tell you the truth, it’s a mafia out there, a connivance between importers and brokers,” he said.

After Aquarius was closed, BOC set up mobile X-ray machines at the Sasa wharf. “Now, they’re doing the inspection but it remains questionable if there really is an honest-to-goodness inspection going on,” said lawyer Manuel Quibod, Aquarius lead counsel.

Alejo said the DEA concept was first in the country and could work out in checking corruption, if there would be an independent party that would also oversee the inspection.

Quibod also recalled that before the accidental discovery of cocaine inside an empty refrigerated container van, both the city government and the military had warned the BOC to include in their inspection the refrigerated empty containers that arrived in Davao City to load fresh fruit and banana produce but customs officials largely ignored the suggestion.

When the news about the discovered cocaine broke out, packs of cocaine (estimated to be about 2 tons) were seen floating around the Pacific side of Samal island. The incident pushed the Philippine Drugs and Enforcement Agency (PDEA) to offer fisherfolks a sack of rice in exchange for every pack of cocaine they could retrieve from the sea.

Quibod also said that as early as October last year, the company had asked President Aquino to order the Department of Finance to investigate the perceived abnormalities at the Bureau of Customs.

He said the Presidential Management Staff (PMS) replied to their letter and promised to investigate but no such thing materialized until now. (Germelina Lacorte / MindaNews)