Albay Rep. Joey Sarte Salceda on Saturday vowed to go after a Chinese syndicate controlling the supply of imported agricultural products in the Philippines.
Meanwhile, Customs agents assigned at the Manila International Container Port seized another shipment of smuggled agricultural products from China worth more than P139 million.
Salceda, chair of the influential House Committee on Ways and Means, said the tax panel will focus its oversight functions on “pinning down the so-called Chinaman Mafia. He said the tax committee has “Class A information from our various sources that this Mafia is in control of agricultural smuggling in the country, at every stage of the smuggling process, from transport to arrival to import permits and sanitary inspection.”
“Intelligence sources tell us that the main characters are Chinese, or their associates,” Salceda said in a statement.
“The tentacles are all over, but I am told that it is a small group, so if we can get to the core group, we should be able to pin the system down.”
Salceda pointed out that high profile seizures of smuggled goods come from China. These include onions seized in Alabang this November, and broccoli and carrots seized in Divisoria last April.
Salceda added the House tax panel will appeal to the Marcos administration to strengthen the Sub-Task Group on Economic Intelligence (STG-EI) to conduct more seizures and arrests.
The group is composed of the Department of Agriculture (DA), the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI), the Bureau of Customs (BOC), the National Intelligence Coordinating Agency (NICA), and the Philippine National Police-Criminal Investigation and Detection Group (PNP-CIDG).
Salceda said the committee will investigate the process “from top to bottom, and from end to end.”
“They have people in the ships, the ports, the inspections, the quarantines, the warehouses, and the economic zones. It’s very pervasive.”
“Based on initial reports, it seems that they took stronger hold of our processes starting 2018, during a period of high food inflation. Rice tariffication helped undercut their control significantly in the rice trade sector. But with high non-tariff barriers in other areas, especially in the issuance of sanitary and phytosanitary import clearances and other administrative requirements, the system is susceptible to abuse and capture.”
Salceda also pledged that his committee will also work with third-parties that have audited the country’s import systems to introduce more transparency in the setup.
“Sunlight is the best disinfectant, so a system that is publicly available, and allows us to monitor major shipments in real time should help curtail smuggling and abuse of the imports processes.”
Salceda added that an interface that matches import permits, arrivals, and import clearances, and flags discrepancies immediately towards more law enforcement agencies “is also a safeguard against abuse by a captured agency.”
“We are studying how process and rules changes can fight agricultural smuggling. That’s part of our policymaking function. But we hope to pin down the agri smuggling mafia so that we can close the opportunities for their ways,” Salceda said.
Over at the BOC, the confiscated agricultural products that arrived at Manila North Harbor between on Nov. 27 and Dec. 3, were consigned to Taculog J International Consumer Goods Trading located at B4 L7 Mariategui HMOA, Alabang, Muntinlupa City.
The shipments were declared to contain udon noodles and frozen dim sum balls, examination conducted by operatives of the Customs Intelligence and Investigation Service at MICP (CIIS-MICP) showed that the shipment contained fresh red and white onions, frozen ox tripe, frozen barbecue, and frozen craw fish.
Customs Commissioner Yogi Filemon Ruiz said he was enraged upon finding out that the same company almost managed to bring in hundred million pesos worth of smuggled agricultural products into the country in less than two months.
“Although I am proud of our men and what they were able to accomplish these past weeks, I am appalled at the gall of these groups. We have reports coming in that a kilo of red onions sells for P720 in the markets. Bringing a hot commodity like onions into our borders without going through the proper procedures is an affront to our farmers, the people who make sure we have enough supply of it,” he said.
Ruiz also said the entry of smuggled agricultural products into the local markets affects the agricultural sector, the workers of which fall under the country’s poorest of the poor.
Deputy Customs Commissioner Juvymax Uy echoed Ruiz’ concerns about the country’s agricultural sector and the general public, especially during the holiday season.
“As Filipinos, we love to gather around the table during the holidays and share whatever food we have, but it seems that many of our kababayans won’t even get to cook their favorite spaghetti recipe because of the high cost of onions and other food products. For the bureau, just the mere act of trying to cross our borders with undeclared items is an insult,” he said.
However, he also underscored the hard work that led to the bureau’s successful operations even during the merriest time of the year.
“I can’t praise our people enough. I know how hard they’ve been working to get to the bottom of how this company operates. And to do it during the holidays, that takes a special kind of commitment and dedication,” Uy added.
Just recently, the CIIS-MICP also impounded container vans loaded with P171 million worth of smuggled agricultural products, including fresh red and white onions, consigned to the same company.
The estimated total value of undeclared agricultural products that Taculog J International Consumer Goods Trading meant to smuggle into the country from November to December 2022 amounted to P327.4 million.
The seizure of smuggled agricultural products was made in cooperation with the DA because importation of such items requires clearance from the Bureau of Plant Industry (BPI), which falls under the umbrella of the DA.