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Political Tidbits is the prestigious column of Belinda Olivares-Cunanan that ran for 25 continuous years in the op-ed page of the Philippine Daily Inquirer, the newspaper that she helped put up with its multi-awarded founder, the legendary Eugenia Duran-Apostol, in December 1985, just two months before the EDSA Revolution.

Thursday, November 1, 2018

In justifiable anger and desperation, President mulls putting Customs under military/police control, to halt drug smuggling. Constitution, however, specifies conditions for military involvement. Besides, long years of military/police camaraderie in their respective academies could worsen collusions in Customs.





The Bureau of Customs has never been an easy place to work in, as two previous appointees of President Duterte in his three years in office---both of them former military officers-- have found out. Let's hope his third military appointee, former AFP Chief of Staff  Leonardo "Jagger" Guerrero, PMA Class '84,  would have better luck as Customs Chief.

The first military to head Customs under Duterte was former Marine colonel Nicanor Faeldon, who ran into controversy soon enough over a drug shipment worth P6.4 billion last May 2017.  Faeldon was replaced by former PNP Chief Isidro Lapeña who just lost his job two weeks ago---amid swirling controversy over the brazen smuggling of an estimated 1.6 tons of shabu from the Port of Manila last July, but which was discovered only last August 8.

The huge drug haul, valued at a whopping P11 billion, had arrived in July and scooted out of Customs to an unknown destination, by Chinese individuals riding in two Mercedes Benz limousines. The haul was estimated to have taken four days' work to siphon off from the four magnetic lifters, and in August the lifters were found abandoned in Cavite, totally empty of their contents.

Lucky for Lapeña that he was merely kicked into the Cabinet, to head TESDA---a most controversial move by the President.

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Ma. Lourdes Mangaoang, deputy collector of customs and the celebrated whistle-blower of the 1.6  ton-shabu smuggling, estimated at the dzRH Sunday program that Cecile Alvarez and I recently conducted, that this staggering amount of shabu could produce 1,600,000 sachets. It boggles the mind just how many of our youth would be damaged by this incredible amount of shabu smuggled out of the Manila International Container Terminal (MICT)!

At the height of the killings of so-called drug pushers and users last year and earlier this year, many alarmed citizens had wondered why the resort to outright slayings under "Operation Tokhang"---WHEN OBVIOUSLY THE MORE IMPERATIVE MOVE WAS TO SHUT THE INTERMINABLE FAUCET OF DRUGS.

Where are the drugs coming from and who's smuggling them into the country? Why are they so accessible even to small-time peddlers, seemingly as easy as peddling cigarettes? Who's distributing them?  Questions swirled about but remained unanswered---until the brazen smuggling of the 1.6 tons of shabu at the MICT last August.  That was the height!

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Earlier answers came in May last year, when information came from the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency (PDEA) about a large smuggling being awaited. Two magnetic lifters (used to lift cars and other metal cargo at the pier) which went missing at the MICT were found a month later---already emptied of the 355 kilos of shabu they had contained, worth around P6.4 billion!

With this initial success the smugglers were emboldened!  Last May 2018 PDEA received information about drugs coming from Malaysia, Vietnam and Hongkong. Bingo! This time 1,600 kilos worth  P11 billion were spirited out of Customs in four magnetic lifters similar to the two missing at the MICT last year. The high-valued cargo, stashed neatly in asbestos heat and fire-resistant bags inside the four magnetic lifters and consigned to a certain company, were moved out of the terminal on a Saturday last June, when only one X-ray inspector was around.  It only involved four hours of work by four Chinese nationals who then scooted away in two Mercedes Benzes.

The four magnetic lifters were later found abandoned in Cavite, with their high-priced cargo already siphoned off.  Lourdes Mangoaong's trained dog-sniffers were right on target.

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With the huge uproar kicked up by this brazen smuggling of the 1,600 kilos of shabu, the President recently announced his decision to place the entire Bureau of Customs---the second largest finance-generating agency of government next to the BIR itself---under military control. Predictably it reaped a storm of controversy.

In his memo earlier this week Mr. Duterte ordered all BOC employees to report to Malacanang as he simultaneously ordered various military branches, such as the Coast Guard, Navy and Army to gather together technical groups and prepare them to take over the operations of the BOC. But as Sen. Francis Escudero rightly pointed out, there could be a problem in calling out the Armed Forces to handle the smuggling in Customs.

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This is because the Constitution, under Sec. 18 of Art. VII, "The Executive Department," specifically provided that the President, as Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces of the Philippines and whenever it becomes necessary, "may call out such armed forces to prevent or suppress lawless violence, invasion or rebellion." And even then, there is a proscribed period not exceeding 60 days during which "he may suspend the privilege of the writ of habeas corpus or place the Philippines or any part thereof under martial law."

I imagine that if the smuggling of deadly drugs at Customs cannot be abated---and the smugglers become so brazen, Mr. Duterte might just invoke some special powers to handle this problem. Let's hope it doesn't have to invoke situations that could just complicate the situation even more.  Just to play safe, the President also altered the rules for cargo release: THREE SIGNATURES of military officials who are taking over the Customs are now required for the release of any goods from the port.

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All these moves, however, are making the senators and representatives as well as the public nervous---as any effort that seem to "militarize" government would always provoke nervousness and challenge certain constitutional provisions.  Already, Sen. Richard Gordon has vowed to scrutinize this decision of the President in a Senate hearing next week.

 I, for one, would think that there could be basis to be nervous about "militarizing" control of Customs.  For instance, military men in general would tend to act as one---doubtless out of long years of training and camaraderie together at the Philippine Military Academy as well as in the various service academies such as those of the coast guard and police.

There is justified apprehension, I would think, that when the coast would appear to be "clear" or other elements of society would relax their vigilance, there could be some military elements more adventurous than others, who could be tempted to throw scrupulosity to the winds and make unlawful moves for the fund of it.

The check-and-balance system could cease to operate when camaraderie of long years is extra-thick and the emboldened smuggling of P11 billion worth of shabu at the Port of Manila becomes just a distant memory.

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What happened at Customs recently was a series of fearless moves by unscrupulous elements who obviously have maintained a strong hold over the port. The President---by now VERY VEXED at how the smugglers have run rings around him---has felt that the best solution at the moment is to entrust Customs operations to the military. TO MILITARIZE CUSTOMS.

I suppose that at this point, there is little the citizenry could do except to warn the President about possible collusion (again!) ---when alarms are down---among some military who have shared long years of camaraderie in various military academies. This new set of military/police may again succumb to the temptation of huge bucks from unrelenting drug lords and their cohorts,

But what else could be done at the moment?   Let's give some space to the military units that will man Customs in place of corrupted or mindless civilian bureaucrats---in the hope that some idealism bred in PMA or other military schools are still left in their hearts. We citizens, however, should also get involved in policing the military's activities---and those guilty ought to be punished post-haste.