THE recent seizure of undocumented sugar from warehouses and a business establishment in Cebu debunks the Bureau of Customs's (BOC) claims that its personnel had initiated measures and seriously campaigned against sugar smuggling.

In separate operations from July 2 to 10, joint operatives of the sugar industry's Sugar Anti-Smuggling Office (Saso), Sugar Regulatory Administration, Philippine National Police and Bureau of Customs-Cebu confiscated a total of 713 50-kilo bags or almost 36 tons of alleged smuggled sugar and 400 empty sugar sacks.

All of the seized sugar sacks bear Thai Roong Ruang markings, indicating that they all came from the same source in Thailand.

The Thai Roong Ruang Group is the second-biggest sugar miller in Thailand, which, in turn, is the largest sugar exporting country in Asia.

Two weeks ago, local sugar traders in Cebu complained that they can find no market for their sugar because of the proliferation of cheaper smuggled raw sugar in Cebu. This is the first time that smugglers have become so daring as to bring in raw sugar instead of the traditionally refined sugar, which they have been smuggling into the country in previous years.

The complaint reached Enrique D. Rojas, president of the National Federation of Sugarcane Planters, through Jose Mari Miranda, president of the Cebu-based Bogo-Medellin Planters Association that is affiliated with NFSP.

Last July 2, Rojas informed then BOC Officer-in-Charge Alexander Arevalo regarding the report. On the same day, Arevalo issued a memo circular, copy furnished Rojas, ordering two BOC deputy commissioners and the District Collector of the Port of Cebu, lawyer Ronnie Silvestre, to "conduct an investigation, take appropriate action and submit a status report as soon as possible" regarding the report.

On July 5, Silvestre sent a memo to Arevalo, copy furnished Rojas, citing the measures undertaken by BOC-Cebu against sugar smuggling. In his memo, Silvestre stated that, "since we assumed office in December 15, 2009, we have initiated the following:

(a) Issued directives to our personnel, particularly the ESS and CIIS, to be more vigilant in ensuring that no smuggling of sugar takes place in this port;

(b) Established coordination with Mr. Jose Escobañnez, representative of the Federation of Philippine Industry based in Cebu, in order to monitor shipments of sugar;

(c) Our Customs Bonded Warehouse (CBW) Division has been tasked to ascertain that importation of sugar intended for CBWs are not diverted to local consumption;

(d) From time to time, we maintain our linkage with Sugar Regulatory Administration, Administrative Director Bernard Trebol, in order to address the issue."

In response, Rojas sent a letter to Silvestre on Tuesday, thanking the BOC-Cebu District Collector "for enlightening us on the measures taken by your office to combat sugar smuggling in Cebu. However, it appears that sugar smuggling has continued unabated."

Rojas cited reports from General Joel R. Goltiao, head of the Saso, regarding the apprehension of undocumented sugar in several warehouses and a business establishment in Cebu.

Rojas reiterated that, in one of the operations, the apprehended sugar was reportedly intended for delivery and repacking to a retailer which, based on SRA sugar price monitoring reports last March 4-5, had been selling refined sugar at only P42.15 per kilo when refined sugar retail price in Negros was already in excess of P52 per kilo.

"Cebu does not have a sugar refinery. It is a net domestic importer of refined sugar. How come that average retail price of refined sugar in Cebu is cheaper by more than P7.00 per kilo compared to prices in Negros which has several sugar refineries? Where does Cebu get its cheaper refined sugar, if not from illegitimate, smuggled sources?" Rojas asked.

"Sugar smuggling has a debilitating effect on all sugar producers. It drives down domestic sugar prices and deprives government of much-needed revenues," he emphasized.

"Apparently, the measures that your office had undertaken failed to stop the influx of smuggled sugar into Cebu and other nearby markets. Saso reports clearly indicate that sugar smuggling is rampant in Cebu. It is our hope that your office will exert more efforts to put a stop to these illegal activities," Rojas said. (Butch Bacaoco)