'50,000 tons of rice smuggled weekly'

Posted at 01/29/2014 8:32 AM

MANILA - As much as 50,000 tons of rice were smuggled every week last year, a ranking Customs official revealed yesterday.

Responding to a question of Minority Leader Juan Ponce Enrile at a Senate hearing, Customs Deputy Commissioner Agaton Teodoro Uvero said, “At its height they were bringing in 2,000 containers a week.”

Uvero said that would translate to 50,000 tons a week at 25 tons per 20-foot shipping container.

Dissatisfied with Uvero’s answers, Enrile said the Bureau of Customs (BOC) must strengthen its intelligence units to fight smuggling.

“We give you money for intelligence, what do you use it for?” Enrile asked.

Uvero said BOC operations were limited since its intelligence funds amounted to only P5 million last year.

He also lamented that BOC collectors who are tasked to collect P25 million are paid a “low” P60,000 a month.

Enrile said the BOC must have Malacañang’s backing and the cooperation of different agencies to wipe out smuggling.

“I’m not trying to embarrass you,” he said. “But I’m raising this question by way of triggering an effort because this is happening. We know it… This is a government effort, not just a BOC effort, to arrest the entry of untaxed products into the country. You cannot stop smuggling without the participation of Malacañang, and I’m talking from experience.”

Enrile said when he was Customs commissioner during the Marcos administration, he had the full backing of Malacañang to stamp out smuggling.

“I’m sure the President is interested, he must be giving you full backing,” he said. “What I’m saying is the entire government must exert effort, not just one agency.”

Sen. Juan Edgardo Angara, Senate committee ways and means chairman, agreed with Enrile that any effort to crush smuggling needs the support of the administration.

“I think the signals from Malacañang had been clear that it has the backing, and I agree with Senator Enrile’s assessment that without the backing of the Palace any campaign against smuggling will not succeed.”

Modernization

Customs Commissioner John Philip Sevilla said computerization will maximize efficiency at the BOC and sought the private audit of Customs operations to ensure transparency.

Sevilla told the committee that the BOC must maximize information technology (IT) systems to allow it to minimize exemptions in their transactions.

With an effective IT system in place, human contact and human intervention will be minimized to curb corruption, he added.

Angara said he supports calls to modernize the BOC to stamp out corruption and smuggling.

“Although enforcement is largely a fight of the executive branch, we are prioritizing these anti-smuggling measures so Congress can aid the government in the fight and we want to ensure that they have the weapons to do so and are not unduly hampered,” he said.

Angara said the BOC needs a “shake-up” or reshuffle of port collectors to avoid too much familiarization with anomalous businessmen, who try to go around the laws and smuggle goods to the country.

He was quite satisfied with the answers of BOC officials, particularly since they had just been appointed, he added.

The committee will be requiring more thorough data and figures in future hearings, Angara said.

The Senate committee tackled the Customs and Tariff Modernization Bill and different versions of anti-smuggling bills, including S. No. 168 – Customs and Tariff Modernization Act of 2013; S. Nos. 442, 456, 741 & 882 – Anti-Smuggling Act; P.S. Res. No. 444 – Inquiry on the study conducted by the Federation of Philippine Industries which found that the government lost more than P1.33 trillion in revenue from 2002 to 2011 due to technical smuggling through the country’s ports.

Conducting the hearing was the Senate ways and means committee chaired by Angara.