Ledesma: To catch a thief

ONE of the most challenging tasks that the Duterte administration will have to face is how to address the endemic corruption in the Bureau of Customs.

This I learned not so long ago from a career Customs official who was assigned in Davao.

For years, the Port of Davao that has jurisdiction over Sasa, General Santos, Mati, and Parang Ports had been performing dismally in terms of collections and apprehensions of smuggled goods.

On the second month, when the District Collector assumed office, the Port of Davao was among the three big ports in the country that hit their quota.

In the case of Davao however, he was consistent in his collection performance earning him certificate of recognition and was even sent by the Finance Department to represent the Philippines in the Ports Operations forums in Indonesia and in New York City.

His foray into the Customs port in Davao was however replete with so many obstacles. Early on, he seized several 40-footer vans of misdeclared cargo of rice, five vans of pyrotechnics, and cargoes of vehicles and appliances. The apprehensions were covered by the local media and the vans were opened before them.

The seizure of several vans of rice was what initially caught my attention because a number of Davao City Councilors with media in tow stormed the Sasa Port and demanded that the cargoes be returned to a private bodega which used to be designated as the examination area (DEA) of incoming cargoes. Why they were there was a mystery of mysteries and could be answered by multi-million reasons.

The District Collector did not relent instead terminated the onerous 25-year DEA contract on orders of the Commissioner of Customs.

That started the travails of a District Collector who was recognized for his achievements. Cases were filed against him in Court. Organized media tirades were hurled against him and a Jesuit priest even joined the fray.

His court cases were dismissed only to be revived by another court and still another court.

Threats on his life mounted he was transferred to the Port of Cagayan de Oro.

POC was among the low performing ports in the country but upon assumption of the erstwhile Davao Customs Port collector, it made a dramatic turnaround.

The moribund Iligan Port and the zero performing port of Ozamiz started contributing to POC’s quota. Smuggling in POC was so rampant but the new team established a new order of discipline in the ranks. One of the subport collector was shot but survived.

Meantime, the case in Davao was elevated to the higher court and administrative cases were leveled on the ex-Davao collector.

I lost track of the progress of the case against Collector Anju Nerio Castigador. His was a tragic episode of a performing asset in the Bureau of Customs.

Davao Port performance was never the same after that. When Castigador bowed out from Davao, he left almost a billion pesos over his target. In the next three months that amount could hardly cover for the diminishing performance of the Davao Port. In fact no more apprehensions of misdeclared cargoes were reported.

Meanwhile talks of illegal shipments of oil somewhere in Davao del Sur had resumed. Smuggling of rice in the high seas of the coast of Parang resumed.

So rampant was smuggling then that it prompted BIR Commissioner Kim Henares to seek the assistance of City Mayor Rodrigo Duterte to help in the apprehension of the rice smuggling syndicates. Her collection performance from rice dealers had plummeted and she surmised it must have due to rice smuggling in the Port of Davao.

Duterte is not only famous for neutralizing drug syndicates. Even as Customs is not part of his turf, he acceded to the request of Henares and mounted his probe.

The mayor has contacts and in no time at all he named a David Tan, aka David Bangayan as the leader of the syndicate during the Senate hearing.

Despite the direct identification of the suspect who happened to be in the audience during the senate inquiry, the Department of Justice under Secretary Leila De Lima slapped him only with theft of telephone accessories, a case which was bailable. The rest is history.

Sometime later, I met a retired Customs official and inquired from him about the fate of Collector Castigador. His answer shocked me. “Jun, one has to be totally corrupt to stay in the Bureau of Customs. Remember those several vans of smuggled goods which ‘disappeared’ between Manila Port to Cavite? The Customs officials who were the Houdinis in that scandal were suspended only to be re-instated and promoted later”.

So good luck Nicanor Faeldon. You are well-meaning just like Ruffy Biazon. But I hope you are made of sterner stuff which I believe you are. The complexity of the network of corruption in the BOC is extremely difficult to disentangle.

As the saying says “you need a thief to catch a thief”. Not necessarily so. Look for a victim or victims of the syndicate in the Bureau of Customs. They might be of help. Good Luck!!!
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