We can understand how frustrated President Duterte must be about the corruption that seems endemic in the Bureau of Customs. Three years in office, and he is already on his third Customs commissioner. The previous two appointees—described by the President as honest men—left their posts in disgrace, their reputations tarnished by scandals involving the smuggling of illegal drugs.
Over the weekend, the President aired his frustrations and said corruption may not be eradicated at all.
“Whoever you place there, there’s always corruption,” he said, as he defended his controversial decision to have the military “take over” the bureau, an order he later dialed down, saying soldiers would only “keep the peace” because the agency was “in anarchy.”
The President’s latest Customs chief, Commissioner Rey Leonardo Guerrero, replaced Isidro Lapeña, a former police official who, ironically, ran the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency not too long ago. His predecessor, Nicanor Faeldon, a former military man who once took up arms against the government, was also replaced following a drug smuggling scandal.
In his remarks, the President blames crooked personnel at the bureau for the entrenched corruption, but doesn’t seem to realize that he could be part of the problem.
After their failures, the previous “good men” who headed the bureau for Mr. Duterte were not punished, but rewarded with new government positions. Faeldon is poised to be appointed as the new chief of the Bureau of Corrections, while Lapeña has been “promoted” to head the Technical Education and Skills Development Authority.
Even granting that the two men were completely innocent of the allegations of corruption, they still held command responsibility for the smuggling that occurred during their watch. Given their spectacular failures, neither deserved to be promoted or even given a new job in the government.
But in doing just that, the President seemed to guarantee a golden parachute to whoever he appoints as Customs chief. There’s no need to worry if they mess up—the President’s got their back.
This soft approach is aggravated by the government’s failure to successfully prosecute any corruption case against Customs officials and personnel.
The US National Institute of Justice, a research, development and evaluation agency of the US Justice Department, summarizes a large body of research related to deterrence in “Five Things About Deterrence.”
Foremost among its findings is that the certainty of being caught is a vastly more powerful deterrent than the punishment. The institute’s research also shows that police deter crime when they do things to strengthen a criminal’s perception of the certainty of being caught.
Finally, laws and policies designed to deter crime by focusing mainly on increasing the severity of punishment are ineffective partly because criminals know little about the sanctions for specific crimes.
When the President says it is really difficult to stop corruption in the Bureau of Customs, he is really saying there is no certainty that the criminals there will be caught. And that is a recipe for failure.