The names of 22 suspected smugglers of agricultural goods and their protectors mentioned in the report of the Senate Committee of the Whole were not from the National Intelligence Coordination Agency (NICA), its director said on Tuesday.
“The list did not come from NICA. In fact, [if you will look at the] committee of the whole report, there was no mention that it came from NICA,” agency director Edsel Batalla said in a text message to GMA News when asked for comment on the Senate report released Monday night.
Two senators had criticized the NICA for the “rawness” of the information on the alleged players in agricultural smuggling.
“We do have our own list, but it is different from the one that was published by the committee,” Batalla added.
He said Navotas Mayor Toby Tiangco was not on NICA’s list of suspected smugglers.
“Per NICA data, [he has no] involvement in smuggling or even as protector,” Batalla said, adding that what NICA had was information on cases the Navotas local government had filed against smugglers.
In reaction, outgoing Senate President Vicente Sotto III warned the NICA director about his latest claim.
“Be careful. I have witnesses and signed logs of their visit sa Senate through [Office of Sergeant-at-Arms]. Tell him,” Sotto told GMA News.
This developed as Customs Commissioner Rey Leonardo Guerrero and one of his subordinates on Tuesday denied they were involved in agricultural smuggling.
“I vehemently deny the accusations against me on my alleged involvement in agricultural smuggling based on a supposed validated list,” said Guerrero in a statement.
The BOC chief also said law enforcement agencies such as the NICA, the Armed Forces of the Philippines, and the Philippine National Police denied the release or submission of any intelligence report from their respective agencies that would implicate any Customs official in any smuggling activity.
The Customs chief – a former Army general himself — said the Senate report also contains the numerous accomplishments of the agency in its campaign against agricultural smuggling, and the adoption of the executive recommendations, which he directed.
“Among these recommendations we implemented are the strengthened inter-agency collaboration and data exchange of relevant information and document such as the Inward Foreign Manifest, among others,” Guerrero said.
“We also allowed DA representatives to take part in the non-intrusive inspection of containers to ensure full transparency in the examination of agricultural products. The BOC also offered DA to deputize its personnel for enforcement operations.”
However, Malacanang on Tuesday urged the Senate to file charges against Guerrero – appointed by President Rodrigo Duterte to the post in 2018 — and several agriculture officials and local officials, acting Presidential spokesman Martin Andanar said in a statement.
Andanar said these persons “were purportedly involved in the illegal importation of agricultural products in the country.”
The Senate report said the amount of smuggled agri-fishery commodities from 2019 to 2022 was estimated at P667.5 million.
“We are one with the Senate in fighting corruption in the bureaucracy,” Andanar said.
He said filing charges before the Ombudsman would also allow those accused to defend themselves.
“File the necessary charges before the Office of the Ombudsman so officials and persons mentioned in the Senate report could be afforded due process, face their accusers, and have their day in court,” the spokesman added.
Customs Intelligence and Investigation Service director Jeoffrey Tacio also slammed the accusation that he was involved in smuggling or in any wrongdoing in the Bureau of Customs.
“I strongly take exception to my inclusion in the list of alleged protectors of unscrupulous personalities involved in the smuggling of agricultural products mentioned in the Senate Committee Report,” said Tacio.
The Senate report of the Committee of the Whole identified Guerrero, Tacio, and 20 other personalities as alleged protectors and smugglers of agricultural products.
The 63-page report mentioned not only BOC officials but also executives of the Department of Agriculture and several mayors.
The report linked 22 persons to the alleged smuggling operations based on an intelligence report received by Senate President Vicente Sotto III on May 17, 2022, containing a “validated list” of persons supposedly involved in illegally importing agricultural products into the country.
However, Senator-elect Robin Padilla said those involved in the multimillion-peso smuggling cases flagged by the Committee of the Whole should resign.
He stressed that “delicadeza” should prevail, and that those implicated in the smuggling should voluntarily quit their position.
“You should step down. This should not be prevalent in the Philippines. If you are undergoing investigation, you should take the first move to resign,” said Padilla, noting that 31 smuggling cases pending with the courts from May 28, 2021 had a total amount of smuggled goods estimated at P848.3 million.
Sen. Aquilino Pimentel III added that a lawmaker signing the committee report did not amount to confirming they had personal knowledge about it.
“It’s just that we acknowledged that intel has reached the SP (Senate President),” he pointed out. “The report, we have to report it as it is… I was signing off not on the list, (but) on the report.”
Pimentel emphasized that it would look bad if the SP received the report, concealed it, and did not publish it on the committee report.
However, Guerrero said his agency allocated more resources to enforcement assets through the procurement of 200 body-worn cameras, 20 units of fast patrol vessels, 60 advanced mobile x-ray machines, 16 Trace Detection Systems, and 100 rifles.
“We also established the Customs Operations Center (COC) which serves as a fusion center to integrate and analyze intelligence, enforcement, and operational information gathered from various sources. The COC proves to be effective in guarding the borders by the immediate processing of all information and ultimately deterring any possible violation.”
In addition, Guerrero said, 82% or 139 out of the 170 Customs processes are now automated to reduce human intervention that provides an avenue for negotiation.
Tacio, for his part, said the CIIS under his command has been at the forefront in the drive against agricultural smuggling and continues to be relentless in conducting enforcement operations at the ports, warehouses outside ports, and public markets against smuggled agricultural products.
“These are supported by empirical data. From 2019 to present, we have a total of 548 seizures of agricultural products, worth 2 billion pesos, as recorded by the BOC,” he said.
“Furthermore, recognizing that agricultural smuggling cannot be solved alone by BOC, we have been consistently coordinating with the Department of Agriculture (DA) and its Bureaus together with the Department of Trade and Industry’s Sub-Task Group on Economic Intelligence.”
Tacio said his team “thwarted the smuggling of agricultural products with joint operations of law enforcement agencies. We have been closely working with the AFP, PNP, NBI and the PCG to carry out the anti-smuggling efforts of the Bureau.”
Meanwhile, the DA’s Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (DA-BFAR) defended its chief Eduardo Gongona.
In a statement, the DA-BFAR said it “takes exception” to the report released by the Senate panel alleging the involvement of its national director in agricultural smuggling.
In Gongona’s defense, the DA-BFAR said that under his leadership, the agency “remained committed to the government’s endeavor to end corruption by instituting mechanisms and processes that uphold the integrity and good governance within the agency.”
“As proof of this commitment, the DA-BFAR has, for the last five years, worked incessantly to improve its quality management system to ensure effectiveness, transparency, and accountability in all its processes. This quality management system has received an ISO 9001:2015 certification in 2020,” it said.
The DA-BFAR added that as part of the improvement of our quality management system, the agency has also strengthened its monitoring and regulations systems to ensure strict compliance with policies and guidelines concerning the domestic and international movement of fish and fishery products.
“Inspection and certification processes and systems have been continuously improved in line with Republic Act 9485 or the Anti-Red Tape Act and Republic Act 11032 or the Ease of Doing Business and Efficient Government Service Delivery Act,” the agency said.
“Likewise, state auditors have affirmed the efforts of the Bureau to maintain transparency and accountability in its financial activities when the Commission on Audit (COA) rendered an unqualified opinion, the highest audit rating given by the COA, on DA-BFAR Central Office’s financial statements for 2021—a first in the history of DA-BFAR,” it said.
The DA-BFAR said the agency and its chief Gongona “are prepared toaddress all the allegations and ensure the Senate and the public of our participation in any investigation that will be initiated regarding this issue.”
“We hope to be given a fair opportunity to prove DA-BFAR’s integrity and reach the truth of this matter,” it said.