Customs again

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Sunday, January 26, 2014

CAN Customs Commissioner John Sevilla clean up the Bureau of Customs (BOC)? I posted this question in the Facebook political forum “Maghisgot Kita’g Politika, Bay” and the motley community of nearly 6,000 netizens with the thought that the commissioner will be in Cebu City today.

Nobody came out to defend the bureau. Most expected Commissioner Sevilla to fail.

Abbey Canturias set the tone for the rest of the commenters. “Judging from Sevilla’s reluctance to give Enrile a direct answer, I am sure as night follows day that he is NOT READY to change the tara system at the BOC. Meaning, he is NOT READY to die trying to change; that he is NOT UP to the job of inducing reforms; that there is NOTHING he can do to change the system in a year or two years; meaning, WALA TAYONG MAASAHAN sa kanya... But why was (he) appointed there? Lol, just for the semblance of change? Of course. Lip service!”


Former news reporter Tonton Antogop delved deeper when the question was posed in radio dyRC’s new 9-10 a.m. program “Pros and Cons.” This station-produced program is coordinating with the administrators of “Maghisgot Kita’g Politika, Bay” (that’s yours truly and Ka Bino Guerrero) in their efforts to also listen to what is being talked about online.

According to Tonton, corruption in the bureau will always be here as long as it is not insulated against patronage politics.

He has a point. Through the years, bureau chiefs are expected to raise money during the campaign period in behalf of Malacañang’s anointed. This was particularly true during the Erap and PGMA period.

Rice smuggling, for instance, began during the Erap years. Shiploads of rice (the sacks were not even placed in container vans yet) kept on arriving and even unloaded behind the old customs house. When PGMA took over, smugglers continued the lucrative importations but took care to place the smuggled rice in container vans.

The supposedly legal importation of rice by the National Food Authority (NFA) that tapped local businessmen and farmers cooperatives also started. I say “supposedly” because the scheme led to rice shipments that nobody could question because these were that of FG.

Well, I knew one questioned this scheme because his share of the “tara” was only P100 per container van and he was already deputy collector for port operations. I gathered from him how smugglers make money: One, by recycling the import papers; Two, by “over-quantity” or importing more than what was in the official documents; and Three, through “grains quality” where the documents report the import of a lower quality than what actually arrived here.

I had the chance to write about this shortly after my source, then deputy collector Wewe Lao, was killed gangland style in front of the PNP Camp in downtown Cebu City.

During the first years of P-Noy’s matuwid na daan, the scheme set up by FG unfortunately continued and one name soon became the dominant player nationwide–a certain David Tan or DT. I was quite amused watching Lito Banayo talk about the rice situation over ANC last week. Banayo was the NFA boss during the rise of this David Tan.

In fairness to the P-Noy administration, the biggest apprehension of smuggled rice happened in Cebu right before the 2013 elections. We can speculate whose political machines got derailed with this customs feat. But it certainly triggered a process that overhauled the bureau and led to the downfall of many customs officials led by former commissioner Ruffy Biazon. The process also led to the entry of retired generals as tax collectors (like Cebu District Collector Almadin) and the appointment of Commissioner Sevilla.

Recently, I remember President Aquino calling this process a re-boot of the customs bureau. But Mr. President, rebooting won’t remove viruses, Trojans, and malware. Well, with Commissioner Sevilla’s revamps and removal of allegedly corrupt officials, he seems like an anti-virus program, sort of.

I don’t know Sevilla aside from this encouraging talk that he plans to sleep in the Centcom barracks during his stay here in Cebu. Contrast this with the former commissioner who, during one visit, brought about a dozen Manila journalists and billeted them at the plush Radisson Blu.

Still, one question lingers at the back of my mind. Can Commissioner Sevilla insulate customs from political patronage?


Published in the Sun.Star Cebu newspaper on January 27, 2014.


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