Duterte on Customs’ shabu controversy: ‘I’m still scouting for one to replace all’

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Philippine Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte gestures as he gives a speech during the 116th anniversary of the Philippine National Police (PNP) at its headquarters in Manila on August 9, 2017. / AFP PHOTO / NOEL CELIS

By Carmencita A. Carillo, Correspondent

PRESIDENT Rodrigo R. Duterte on Thursday, Aug. 10, hinted at a revamp in the Bureau of Customs (BoC), amid its continuing controversy over the large-scale shipment of illegal drugs into the country.

“No matter what I do, these Magdalo guys who rebelled against the government because of corruption, now I won, I want to give meaning to their struggle. Pinasok, ganun din pala [They entered government, it’s the same]. It’s very hard to find an honest person,” Mr. Duterte said on Thursday during the inauguration of an apartment complex in Davao City.

The Magdalo he was referring to is the military faction that led the 2003 Oakwood Mutiny against then president Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo. Customs Commissioner Nicanor E. Faeldon, then a captain in the Philippine Marines, was a member of that group.

“I’m still scouting for one to replace all the customs office,” Mr. Duterte also said.

“I am looking for an honest man. Napakahirap talaga ang government. [Government is really difficult.] Sabi ng iba magrebelde kasi may corruption. [People say they rebel because of corruption.] So I gave them time to fix government so it won’t be corrupt,” he added.

On the heels of Mr. Duterte’s remarks on Thursday, the BoC in a statement on Friday said there is “no truth to the rumors” that two of its officials, Deputy Commissioner Natalio Ecarma III of the Revenue Collection and Monitoring Group and Deputy Commissioner Gerardo Gambala of the Management Information Systems and Technology Group, “have resigned from their posts.”

Mr. Duterte also commented on Vice-Mayor Paolo Z. Duterte’s being implicated in the allegations against the BoC.

“Let me repeat my promise to the people and a commitment and you have my word for it. Kung isa sa mga anak ko, si Inday (Davao Mayor Sara Duterte-Carpio), si Pulong (Vice-Mayor Duterte), pati si Sebastian ma-involve ito sa corruption [If any of my children are involved in corruption], just show me the papers and let me talk to the guy who knows about it, then I will resign tomorrow,” the President said.

“I can resign tomorrow, the day after they prove that their allegation against my son Paolo is involved. I want you to know that rule is for the entire Filipino people and it does not exempt my family, and I’ll be the first to go,” he added.

Meanwhile, the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency (PDEA) in a statement on Friday said it “welcomes the legal opinion of the Department of Justice (DoJ) on the custody and disposition of seized drug evidence with respect to the country’s customs laws.

“According to the DoJ, there is no conflict of authority between PDEA and BoC relative to the custody and disposition of confiscated illegal drugs. The categorical command of Section 21 of RA 9165 [the Comprehensive Dangerous Drugs Act of 2002] says that PDEA shall remain the custodial authority over drug evidence seized even if it is an anti-drug operation conducted by BoC,” PDEA Director-General Isidro S. Lapeña said in the statement.

The statement said “confusion [has] emerged from the refusal of BoC personnel to turn over seized illegal drugs to PDEA and [their] being uncooperative with investigations conducted by the Agency.”

“As a matter of fact, there have been incidences where BoC asserted exclusive authority over the contrabands pursuant to their jurisdiction over importations of restricted goods, as provided in the CMTA [Customs Modernization and Tariff Act]. The BoC also disposed seized instruments and equipment for the manufacture of dangerous drugs according to their rules,” Mr. Lapeña said.

The statement also noted that, “[d]ue to the supposed conflict of authority, PDEA has lost its opportunity to investigate, identify, arrest and prosecute high-profile drug personalities in the past.”

Mr. Lapeña said BoC had violated operational protocols by turning over the seized shabu to the NBI instead to PDEA. “They did not even bother to coordinate with us immediately upon learning the shabu shipment in the first place,” he said, referring to the P6 billion worth of methamphetamine hydrochloride, or shabu, recovered in separate raids in Valenzuela City on May 26.

“The law, given its literal meaning, is very clear. PDEA shall take charge and have custody and disposition of all dangerous drugs, controlled precursors and essential chemicals and laboratory equipment confiscated in anti-drug operations,” Mr. Lapeña said.

In his statement on Friday, Senator Panfilo M. Lacson said: “PDEA should lose no time in pursuing what could be a significant lead as to who possibly received the mysterious three other containers probably containing 1,800 kgs of shabu that were part of the shipments that Cheng Julong, a.k.a. Richard Tan, owner of Hongfei Xiamen and Hongfei Philippines, facilitated through Taguba, Marcellana and EMT with Customs but not yet accounted for.”

“However since what was discovered in Manila are mere crystal residue of suspected shabu, recovering the same is similar to putting expended toothpaste back into the tube which is extremely difficult, if not possible,” Mr. Lacson also said.

On Thursday, the senator posted a tweet that read: “Aren’t you mad at the BOC, Mr President? That’s 605kgs of high grade meth that slipped out of the Customs zone under their noses.” — with Mario M. Banzon