Cabaero: Military approach

THERE cannot be a single approach to a complex problem.

The decision last week of President Rodrigo Duterte to place the Bureau of Customs (BOC) under military control appears to be that single approach: definitive and strong, but untested. It also raised questions on how a military approach could defeat a web of corruption when three former police and military top officials who were named BOC head failed in their separate attempts.

Former Marine captain Nicanor Faeldon was BOC chief from May 2016 until August 2017 when he tendered his resignation. His appointment raised hopes he could finally institute changes in an office known to be the most corrupt in government. He failed as he said he could not end corruption in the BOC because he was “working alone.”

It was as BOC head that Faeldon was questioned over the release of 604 kilos of shabu worth P6.4 billion. After his resignation, Faeldon was “recycled,” a term used to describe the transfer of resigned officials to other government positions, to the Office of Civil Defense as a deputy administrator and, recently, to the Bureau of Corrections as director.

To take the place of Faeldon in the BOC, Duterte named Isidro Lapeña who was the former head of the Davao City police when Duterte was mayor, the police director for operations before he retired in 2017, and Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency chief. In late October, Duterte announced he was assigning Lapeña to the Technical Education and Skills Development Authority after a multibillion-peso drug smuggling controversy at the Customs.

After Lapeña came Rey Leonardo Guerrero, a retired Philippine Army general, former Chief of Staff of the Armed Forces of the Philippines, and former Maritime Industry Authority administrator. Guerrero became the third BOC head under the Duterte administration. All three have police or military background.

Past presidents have also appointed generals to head the BOC in the hope that military might or strength would counter massive corruption. Even President Benigno Aquino III appointed a retired military official to the BOC. But it is under Duterte that for the first time military personnel would take over Customs operations.

Duterte said last week all Customs officials “will be replaced, all of them, by military men. It will be a takeover of the Armed Forces in the matter of operating in the meantime while we are sorting out how to effectively meet the challenges of corruption in this country.”

His decision was met by accusations of martial law in the BOC and fears among traders on the effects of such change on their schedule of exports and imports.

Corruption at the BOC has been around for so long and its tentacles have reached beyond the Customs offices and into the fields of business and even media. Having men with long firearms running a civilian office is one approach that is too much but, ironically, not enough to address a complicated mess.


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