CUSTOMS broker Mark Ruben Taguba told the Senate Blue Ribbon committee Tuesday he handed P5 million in cash as a one-time “enrollment fee” to a friend and “handler” of Davao City Vice Mayor Paolo Duterte to facilitate his transactions at the Bureau of Customs.
Taguba, the broker of the P6.4-billion shipment of shabu that slipped through Customs in May, said he met “Small”—whom he identified as Davao Councilor Nilo Abellera Jr.—and a certain “Jack” in a restaurant in Davao City to hand over the money in January 2017.
He said he never met the vice mayor, however. The shipments—605 kilos of shabu—was found days later in a Valenzuela City warehouse during a raid conducted by Customs personnel led by the director for the Intelligence and Investigation Service, Neil Anthony Estrella.
Estrella had told the Senate panel that Chinese Customs had tipped him off about the shipment from Xiamen. He said the warehouse was owned by Chen Ju Long alias Richard Tan, owner of Hong Fei Logistics Co.
Taguba said he was introduced to the “Davao Group,” which included “Small” and “Jack,” by a certain “Tita Nanie,” whom he had met at a Quezon City mall.
Senator Richard Gordon, chairman of the committee, asked Taguba repeatedly for the surnames of Jack and Tita Nanie, but the broker said he did not know their last names.
Nanie Koh and Lorna Rosario, who were thought to be behind the alias Tita Nanie, were both invited to the hearing. But Taguba, said neither of them was the Tita Nanie he had met.
Taguba said he knew Tita Nanie through Jojo Bacud, an acquaintance of his father.
Bacud was working for the BoC’s Special Studies and Project Development Committee and helped him get his shipments smoothly through Customs.
But when his father had a quarrel with a certain Mike Saban, who was said to have strong connections at the BoC, Taguba’s shipments were always tagged.
The broker then asked Bacud for help, and he referred him to Tita Nanie.
Trillanes said Abellera had close ties with Paolo Duterte and showed photos of them to support his claim, but Gordon said these did not prove that Paolo was involved in smuggling.
Abellera was invited to attend Tuesday’s meeting, but he failed to show up, claiming hypertension.
During the hearing, Taguba also read text messages from Tita Nanie, who said Jack was the “handler of Paolo [Duterte]” and that Jack could arrange his meeting with Paolo. But Taguba said he and the vice mayor never met.
“Good am, Mark. Will make final arrangement with Jack. He is the handler of Paolo. Now, we have to advance the enroll. He can fly to Davao to arrange a meeting with Pulong ASAP. During the meeting, you personally turn over the P5 million…,” one text message read.
Pulong is the nickname of Paolo Duterte.
Aside from the P5 million “enrollment fee,” Taguba said he paid the Davao Group P10,000 per container. On average, he said, he processed 100 containers a week, amounting to P1 million. He said Jack would fly to Manila every Friday to collect the money.
He said after he paid the Davao group, he encountered no difficulties at the BoC. This setup went smoothly for three months until one day, he received an alert on one of his shipments.
Taguba said he called Tita Nanie who told him he had scolded Jack. She then referred him to a “Third Group” also supposedly based in Davao, with “Noel” and “Big Brother,” whom he called “General Capuyan.”
Senator Antonio Trillanes IV identified him as Col. Allen Capuyan from the Philippine Military Academy Class of 1983 and said he is assigned in Davao City.
The next hearing of the committee is set for Aug. 30.
In a late Monday night press conference, President Rodrigo Duterte admitted that the smuggling of the shabu shipment through Customs meant he could not wipe out the drug menace in three to six months, as he had earlier promised to do.
“I said I will try to stop the shabu problem within three to six months, but I never realized that an agency under me [was the one slipping shabu in],” Duterte said.
While Duterte was composed during most of the press briefing, he appeared upset when the topic of the Customs mess was discussed.
“What more poignant reaction [do] you want?” Duterte said when asked about Senator Panfilo Lacson’s remark that he had not expressed outrage upon learning of the shabu shipment. “I was admitting my failure. That’s one. Very clear. Second is, I said it’s impossible to stop [the drug problem] within six months because one of my agencies is slipping shabu in. That was my reaction. And if that does not sound like a reaction, well, I’m sorry.”
Duterte, who campaigned on a vow to eradicate the illegal drug trade within three to six months, has already asked for an extension of the bloody drug war until the end of his term.
In the same interview, Duterte ordered incoming Customs Commissioner Isidro Lapeña to “get the neck” of those who facilitated the entry of more than P6.4 billion worth of shabu from China.
“There’s going to be an investigation there in Customs… That’s why I’m putting another guy there, to find out,” he said.
“I am sure General Lapeña will have [something], let’s just wait. Let the guy sit there for a time… and in due time, I will ask for the neck of those involved,” he added.
Duterte vowed that he would slap criminal charges against erring BoC personnel proven to be involved in the entry of drugs at the Port of Manila, amid reports that this has transpired on repeated occasions.
Lapeña replaces former Marines general Nicanor Faeldon, whom lawmakers had wanted replaced for mishandling the smuggled shabu shipment.
Faeldon posted a statement on his official Facebook page a few minutes after Duterte announced his departure, denying allegations of corruption against him.
“My continuous stay in the Bureau of Customs is politically polarizing the country, so the decision of the President is for the best. I will continue to serve our country and the welfare of the Filipino people,” said Faeldon.
“I have served you to the best of my ability and I have not done any act of corruption in my entire government service,” he said.
Duterte earlier revealed that Faeldon has offered to resign at least three times.
Senate President Pro-Tempore Ralph Recto said Lapeña has no time be an on-the-job training and should hit the ground running, given a P1.28-billion daily collection goal that is vital to government operations.
“Bureau of Customs [BoC] chief’s main mission is to rally the 3,031 employees of the second biggest revenue earner to hit their assigned collection target of P468 billion this year,” said Recto.
To meet its 2017 collection goal of P468 billion, Recto said Lapeña must craft “a catch up and turnaround plan” to arrest its consistent record of failing to meet collection goals.
In 2016, BoC collected P398.4 billion of its P409-billion revenue goal. For the first six months of 2017, BOC revenue reached P212.1 billion, also short of the P217.9 billion goal for the period.
“In fairness to Faeldon, the disparity was not that big. Just a small push to meet the target,” Recto said.
But lawmakers from both chambers of Congress welcomed Faeldon’s departure.
Liberal Party senators said reforms are needed in the agency following the entry of P6.4 billion worth of shabu from China recently.
LP president Senator Francis Pangilinan said the government must find and punish the guilty parties if it is serious in its anti-drug campaign.
Senator Paolo Benigno Aquino IV said Lapeña, as a former head of the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency, should focus on stopping the entry of illegal drugs.
Minority Floor Leader Franklin Drilon, for his part, said that he expects the new Customs commissioner to follow the rule of law and implement it to the letter so the agency can fulfill its mandate as a revenue-generating arm of the government.
Earlier, the LP senators urged Malacanang to replace Faeldon and other top officials of the BOC to allow reforms to be implemented in the graft-ridden agency.
Pangilinan said Duterte has fired several appointees for lesser offenses and should do the same to Faeldon, who allowed 600 kilos of shabu to pass through the Customs unnoticed.
In the House, Reps. Lito Atienza of Buhay Party-list and Ben Evardone of Eastern Samar said that Faeldon had to go for his ineptitude and failure to arrest the rampant corruption at the BoC.
“It’s about time,” Atienza said, adding that “if found guilty in ongoing investigations he should still be charged.”
Evardone shared a similar view, saying that the resignation of Faeldon will not free him from any criminal prosecution.
He said President’s Duterte’s acceptance of Faeldon’s resignation was a “welcome development.”
Rank and file employees of the BoC welcomed the appointment of Lapeña.
The Customs Employees Association also said that the 20 Magdalo officers hired by Faeldon and who occupy sensitive positions should also resign from the bureau. Among them are former Army captains Alvin Ebreo, Gerardo Gambala, and former Navy lieutenant James Layug.
The appointment of Lapeña will boost the morale of the BoC’s BIR rank-and-file employees who are now more inspired in their efforts to raise more for the government, one Customs official said.
Meanwhile, Faeldon urged all Customs employees to support the reform agenda he introduced when he assumed the top BoC post.
“My relief from my post is the best for our country. I urge everyone to continue to support the reform agenda and the development programs of the President,” Faeldon said in a statement.
“I thank everyone who has supported the Bureau of Customs during my stay and I appeal to the BoC employees and to the public to support the new commissioner,” he added.
Most of the Customs officials and rank and file employees were elated at the removal of Faeldon who threatened to “kill” corrupt Customs officials and employees just a week after he assumed the BoC post last year.
The BoC employees said they are fully behind Lapena to improve the government’s revenue collection. With Maricel V. Cruz
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