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Military takes over Customs

Duterte seeks end to bureau’s ‘dirty games’

President Rodrigo Duterte has placed the Bureau of Customs under military control, a move the Palace said was both temporary and constitutional.

Speaking at the birthday celebration of former Foreign Affairs chief Alan Peter Cayetano on Sunday, Duterte said the Armed Forces of the Philippines would “take the wheel” at the bureau to address corruption in the wake of a drug smuggling scandal that saw the replacement of Customs chief Isidro Lapeña, himself a military man.

READ: ‘Cleansing’ set at Customs

“They 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,” he said.

“All Customs police are also on floating status, everybody. The Customs Intelligence Unit, they are to report to Malacañang, all of them. I am ordering everybody to report to my office,” Duterte said.

“They will hold office there at the Malacañang gymnasium. All [of them],” he added.

The President said he could not simply dismiss all the Customs employees because they had to follow. “With this kind of games that they are playing, dirty games, I am forced now to ask the Armed Forces to take over,” he said.

Duterte acknowledged that innocent government employees would be affected by his directive, but said he had no time to separate the corrupt from the honest.

 READ: Guerrero: Customs men still run show 

“Not all of you are thieves or robbers, but you must be an idiot not to understand,” he said.

“You say that you are honest, that you are not part of the cabal there. If that is your line, I cannot move, and you stay there, then I have to speculate if you are really a gangster working for the Bureau of Customs [or] a government employee,” the President said.

The President said his directive to put the BOC under the control of the military is part of his declaration of the state of lawlessness in the country last year.

“Part of the lawless elements is there inside the Bureau of Customs,” he said.

Presidential Spokesman Salvador Panelo defended the President’s move.

READ: Duterte admits militarizing government

“The Constitution provides that the President is the head of government, the head of state and the commander in chief of the Armed Forces of the Philippines. Now, the Constitution also provides that he has control over all executive offices, and BOC is one of them,” he said in a Palace press briefing Monday.

As the country’s Chief Executive, Duterte can exercise control over l the executive offices’ operations and the military’s functions and movements in any manner that he deems fit, Panelo said.

He said Duterte chose military personnel because he has complete trust and confidence in them as men of integrity.

The military will be given a week “to learn the ropes” of the administrative work in the BOC, Panelo said.

Panelo said Duterte would allow the incoming BOC chief Rey Leonardo Guerrero to enlist AFP personnel to help him run the bureau.

“Certainly, he [Guerrero] would be choosing people with expertise. The members of the AFP are not limited to military work, there are a lot of them, who have taken graduate [courses], scholarship with respect to some technical know-how. And certainly, they will also be undergoing training to be competent in the field that they would be assigned to,” he said.

Panelo also assured the public that Customs services would continue with no lull or stoppage.

Asked how long the President’s order would take effect, Panelo said it will remain until “it is necessary” and as long as the President is satisfied with the BOC’s performance.

Duterte, disgusted with corruption in the bureau, transferred former Customs Commissioner Isidro Lapeña to the Technical Education and Skills Development Authority, insisting that it was crooked Customs officials under him that pulled the wool over his eyes in the smuggling in of P11 billion worth of shabu.

Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra said the military takeover of Customs was temporary and would not violate the rule of civilian supremacy.

“Putting the Bureau of Customs under the watchful eye of the AFP is a temporary measure to ensure that massive entry of illegal drugs, which threatens public safety, is immediately stopped,” Guevarra said.

“The President, as Chief Executive, has the power of supervision and control over the entire Executive Department, and is duty-bound to ensure that all laws be faithfully executed. However, civilian rule shall at all times be supreme,” he said, adding that the BOC chief is a civilian.

“The Bureau is headed by retired general, Rey Guerrero, who is now a civilian,” he said.

Lapeña was removed as Customs chief last week after he was accused of doing nothing, despite being told that four magnetic lifters found in a Cavite warehouse in August had contained billions of pesos worth of shabu that had slipped past Customs.

Lapeña’s predecessor, former Marine captain Nicanor Faeldon, resigned after P6.5 billion worth of methamphetamine hydrochloride or shabu slipped past the BOC in May last year.

Deputy Collector Lourdes Mangaoang, who had told Lapeña of the shabu shipment, said a military takeover was not a “perfect solution” but could be a good temporary measure.

On the public affairs program Headstart on the ANC news channel, Mangaoang said during the Aquino administration, then Commissioner John Philip Sevilla tapped retired military general to serve as deputy commissioners for intelligence and district collectors, but the agency never hit its revenue targets for 27 months.

Mangaoang also cited a World Bank report that suggested that the volume of smuggled goods was at its highest during the Aquino administration, at about $19 billion—about five times higher than the $3.9 billion during the nine years of President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo.

There was also port congestion “for the first time” under the watch of former President Benigno Aquino III, said Mangaoang.

“The military men that were made district collectors were incompetent at Customs. They were good at military matters, but when it come to Customs procedures, it took them too long to release goods,” she said in Filipino.

Senators said they had misgivings about the move.

Senator Panfilo Lacson said the government should learn from history, establish a focused counter-intelligence system to curb corruption, and prioritize leadership by example.

He said these can help curb corruption without having to tap officers of the AFP.

Lacson cited the failed experiment of using idealistic AFP officers to run the BOC in the 1960s.

“In the early ‘60s, some young, idealistic AFP officers were put in charge of the BOC operations. They learned fast, they couldn’t be bribed or intimidated. The smugglers used equally young, beautiful women to influence them. The rest is history we don’t want to remember,” Lacson said in a post on his Twitter account.

Lacson said there was a need for a sophisticated counter-intelligence mechanism in the BOC.

More importantly, he said those in charge should apply the principle of leadership by example, “not in words, but in practice.”

Senator Francis Pangilinan said placing a revenue-generating agency under the Armed Forces of the Philippines is of doubtful legality.

“What does AFP know about collecting taxes and tariffs? The bureaucracy is becoming militarized. What’s next? BIR? Immigration?” he said.

He noted that not all military officials are effective managers, citing as inept Faeldon, Lapeña and Jason Aquino of the National Food Authority.

Regardless of who manages the Bureau of Customs, Pangilinan said that if Malacañang itself tolerates and does not punish Faeldon and Lapeña and doesn’t show any teeth against drug lords, nothing will come of the AFP takeover.

He said the solution was not to transfer control to the military but to show that incompetent and corrupt officials and the syndicates they serve will be punished.

“Placing the AFP in charge of the BoC may appear decisive and daring but what we need are no-nonsense solutions, not theatrics,” he added.

Senator Leila de Lima said the President’s decision for the AFP to take over the Bureau of Customs sets a dangerous precedent.

She said it normalizes the unconstitutional act of granting the military-civilian functions and power over civilian offices.

Senate President Vicente Sotto III described the President’s move as “radical but necessary.”

“I believe drastic measures are needed to finally crack the whip in the bureau. What the BOC needs is an overhaul from top to bottom,” he said.

A pro-administration lawmaker on Monday said President Duterte’s order showed how frustrated the President was over the unabated corruption in the bureau.

Muntinlupa City Rep. Ruffy Biazon, a former Customs commissioner, also said the President’s order was a show of his continued commitment to institute reforms at the bureau.

Surigao del Norte Rep. Robert Ace Barbers, chairman of the House committee on dangerous drugs, agreed. “Desperate times call for desperate measures,” he said.

“If bringing in the Armed Forces would help instill discipline and order in the Bureau of Customs, so be it. President Duterte, with the best intentions in mind, needs all the support of people who want to rid the agency of corruption and shenanigans,” Barbers said.

But opposition and Akbayan Party-list Rep. Tom Villarin said what the President proved was his ‘dictatorial’ leadership.

“It is an extreme response putting a purely civilian bureaucracy under military control. It’s as if President Duterte has imposed nationwide martial law. The drug problem has now become a weapon of convenience to sound off the use of martial law powers,” Villarin said.

READ: Customs, PDEA still at odds over shabu

Topics: Rodrigo Duterte , Alan Peter Cayetano , Armed Forces of the Philippines , Isidro Lapeña ,
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