‘Cleansing’ set at Customs

Guerrero vows to push real reform, Palace confirms drug rings at BoC

New Customs Commissioner Rey Guerrero on Friday vowed to go after corrupt officials in the Bureau of Customs, promising a cleansing of the ranks that his two predecessors also vowed but saw them getting booted out instead over billions of illegal drugs successfully smuggled into the country.

‘Cleansing’ set at Customs
MARCHING ORDER. President Rodrigo Duterte greets newly appointed Bureau of Customs chief Rey Guerrero on the sidelines of the 117th anniversary of the Philippine Coast Guard at the Port Area of Manila on Thursday. Also in picture is Transportation Secretary Arthur Tugade. Malacañang Photo
If Guerrero succeeds, it would be third time lucky for President Rodrigo Duterte, who had previously appointed Nicanor Faeldon and Isidro Lapeña—both former military officials like the incoming BOC chief —only to dismiss them after billion-peso shipments of shabu got past Customs, undermining the Chief Executive’s war on drugs.

“Corrupt officials have no place in the government service. The marching order of the President is simple, to push for genuine reform at the bureau,” Guerrero said in his first day at Customs, where all eyes are on the former Armed Forces chief of staff to effect reforms that skeptical BOC insiders say are “moonshots” at best.

“Officials tend to be swallowed by the system here, no matter how good their intentions are,” one longtime midlevel Customs official, who requested anonymity, told Manila Standard.

Guerrero, the outgoing Maritime Industry Authority administrator, said he will bring some of his trusted men to the bureau and will conduct a major reorganization at Customs.

His predecessor, Lapeña, was effectively sacked by the President but also promoted to the Technical Education and Skills Development Authority, a Cabinet-level agency unlike the BOC, which is under the Department of Finance.

Duterte also dismissed all top Customs officials along with Lapeña, a former police general and Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency chief.

“What is important now is to trust the leader to be able to implement reforms,” Guerrero said.

Asked if Duterte gave him any marching orders, he said: “The President’s order is simple, Just do your job.”

Guerrero said he would solicit some pointers and instructions from the outgoing Customs chief to familiarize himself with the office and understand the ins and outs of the BOC.

This developed as the Palace said Friday corrupt officials and employees at the BOC were in cahoots with drug syndicates to vilify outgoing chief Lapeña.

Presidential Spokesman Salvador Panelo said the corruptions was apparent, not only during the term of President Rodrigo Duterte but also past administrations.

“Notwithstanding the nefarious practices which besiege the bureau, Lapeña managed it untainted and instituted several reform initiatives resulting in a substantial increase in its revenue collection that even surpassed its given targets,” Panelo said in a statement Friday.

“The President continues to have the complete trust and confidence on the competence and integrity of incoming TESDA Director-General Lapeña,” he added.

Panelo’s statement was released after the sudden reassignment of Lapeña to TESDA as the bureau grappled with a multi-billion-peso shabu smuggling scandal.

In an interview, Panelo said the President transferred Lapeña to TESDA as a way of sparing him from further intrigues and criticisms.

“You know the President, he wants to spare him [Lapeña] from intrigue because he has been extremely defamed,” Panelo told radio dwFM.

“That’s why it was sudden. The announcement was made in a hurry and his promotion was tackled. He’s now a Cabinet member,” he said.

Lapeña came under fire after a shipment of shabu worth between P6.8 billion and P11 billion was said to have slipped through Customs.

But Panelo blamed unnamed Customs employees who might be involved in “severe” cases of corruption.

“Anyone you put there will really have a hard time. The people who are under you toy with the job,” Panelo said.

He said the four empty magnetic lifters that were found in a Cavite warehouse were designed, not to lift anything but to conceal their cargo of drugs.

“That’s why there was lead around it. You will not see the inside,” he said.

In his speech Thursday, Duterte announced he would promote the former BOC chief to a Cabinet position, appointing Maritime Industry Authority Administrator Rey Leonardo Guerrero to take the helm of the bureau.

Duterte, who had previously backed Lapeña’s view that the lifters contained no drugs, expressed frustration over corruption in the bureau.

No X-ray machine, he added, would find illegal drugs if corrupt officials did not want to find them.

He then ordered the removal of all Customs commissioners and department heads to give Guerrero a free hand in appointing his people.

Senator Panfilo Lacson, an ally of the President, acknowledged that Lapeña’s transfer to TESDA was a promotion in rank and position, but said the move was definitely a demotion in trust and confidence.

Lacson said that was a pity because except for the latest shabu smuggling that was a result of collusion between drug syndicates and low-level customs officials, Lapeña was doing a good job.

His initiatives consistently led to an increase in the bureau’s collections, Lacson added.

“Having said that, the President has once again shown zero tolerance as far as his war on drugs is concerned,” he said.

Asked if there were concerns about Lapeña’s qualifications to run TESDA, Lacson said: “We had the same apprehension when he took over BOC but he delivered.”

But Senator Antonio Trillanes questioned Lapeña’s promotion to TESDA after he was booted out of the BOC.

“If he was really good and he had the President’s trust, why remove im from Customs,” Trillanes said.

“If he failed or he connived with people to smuggle in drugs, why promote him?” he asked in Filipino.

Trillanes said the only possible explanation was that Duterte was rewarding Lapeña’s loyalty and guaranteeing his silence and continued cooperation, as he did with the previous Customs commissioner, Nicanor Faeldon.

He said both former Customs commissioners surely know the true masterminds behind those huge shabu shipments.

Another member of the opposition bloc, Akbayan Senator Risa Hontiveros said Lapeña’s transfer to TESDA despite his involvement in the shabu smuggling scandal demonstrates that Duterte’s administration is a recycling bin for the corrupt and incompetent.

“That President Duterte continues to express ‘trust’ in Lapeña despite his gross failings and the suspicion of corruption is a clear indication that this government is not interested in holding people to the standards of accountability,” she said.

“This is not an administration of the best and the brightest. This is not a government with the best interests of the country at heart. This is a regime of questionable characters and even more questionable competence.”

Senator Joel Villanueva acknowledged that it was the prerogative of the President to select his Cabinet, but said Lapeña’s transfer was surprising—and reminiscent of Faeldon’s transfer, which reflects a lack of accountability in the administration.

The chairman of the House committee on dangerous drugs on Friday said he hopes the new leadership of the Bureau of Customs will cooperate with the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency.

“We hope that the BOC and the PDEA can provide closure to the issue,” said Surigao del Norte Rep. Robert Ace Barbers, the panel’s chairman.

Lapeña had been at odds with PDEA chief Aaron Aquino over the alleged smuggled shabu, denying at first that it existed. He later changed his tune, after evidence was presented at a Senate hearing on the smuggled drugs.

Barbers, meanwhile, said former Customs intelligence officer 1 Jimmy Guban who pointed to dismissed Police Senior Supt. Eduardo Acierto as the person behind the entry of the drug shipment should tell the whole truth.

He said Guban, who had 56 foreign trips since 2006 despite his meager earnings as Intel Officer 1, admitted his close ties with his classmate and former PDEA Deputy Director Ismael Fajardo.

Mr. Guban’s testimony raised more doubts and questions on the particular shipment of the four magnetic lifters found in GMA, Cavite. We know now that Mr. Guban was responsible for hiring SMYD Trading as consignee for the shipment. We also know that Mr. Guban met several times with Supt. Acierto and PDEA Dep. Dir. [Ismael] Fajardo to discuss the shipment,” Barbers said.

“From this information, we can surmise that this shipment was special. However, despite our hunches, we are confronted with the BOC’s report that the four magnetic lifters contained no contraband, be it drugs or another illegal item,” Barbers added. With Macon Ramos-Araneta and Maricel V. Cruz

READ: Customs, PDEA still at odds over shabu​

Topics: Rey Guerrero , Bureau of Customs , illegal drugs , Rodrigo Duterte , Maritime Industry Authority
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