ACTUALLY, yes. But first, an urgent digression before we get into that amazing-but-true transformation at the Bureau of Customs, complete with today’s bashing at the BoC anniversary bash of 30 smuggled rides, including BMWs, Benzes, a Jaguar, a Corvette, a Lexus, and a P13.3-million McLaren.
Last Thursday we discussed the call of former Health Secretaries Manuel Dayrit and Esperanza Cabral, and 56 other members of Doctors for Public Welfare for greater circumspection in public statements on the Dengvaxia controversy.
In case our column suggested otherwise, we agree with DPW that lips must be zipped on the Dengvaxia issue, especially those that may have personal agenda to push. There are Department of Health officials who may seek to evade liability in the mass vaccination program, and medical and legal staff of the Public Attorneys Office claiming of mammoth payouts for families of dead children.
But to stop PAO autopsies of dengue deaths, as DPW have asked the Department of Justice to order its attached agency, could very well make parents shun vaccines even more. Thankfully, Justice Secretary Vitaliano Aguirre 2nd declined to restrain PAO, which is the most credible agency in this controversy, far more than the DoH and even the Philippine General Hospital.
If PAO stopped investigating deaths of vaccinated children, people would smell a cover-up, and fear DoH vaccinations even more.
Rather than stopping PAO autopsies, what’s needed to restore public and parental trust is to hold officials accountable for the Dengvaxia mass vaccinations, impose heavy penalties, and most important, remove them from any involvement with vaccination. Let’s hope the NBI finishes its report soon.
Taking over a pigsty
Now, can the DoH regain public trust, even if officials responsible for the Dengvaxia debacle are sanctioned and removed? Well, Secretary Francisco Duque 3rd should watch how Customs Commissioner Isidro Lapeña is recasting the BoC, where anomalies are many times over anything in the DoH.
Picture this: Under President Aquino, smuggling more than tripled, from $7.9 billion in 2010 to $26.6 billion by 2014, based on the difference between exports to the Philippines reported by our trading partners, and total imports recorded by Customs. Both are found in the International Monetary Fund Direction of Trade Statistics. Total misdeclared or underdeclared imports in 2011-2014: P4 trillion, losing the government P720 billion in value-added tax alone.
What’s worse, that flood of contraband included guns and drugs, as Aquino himself admitted in his 2013 state of the nation address. And much narcotics and firearms, including whole drug labs, slipped through in many of the 2,500 uninspected and untaxed cargo containers lost in transit between Manila and Batangas ports in 2011.
But Aquino has only himself to blame for his smuggling explosion. One of the two men he interviewed for the BoC post in July 2010 was former commissioner Guillermo Parayno, whose sweeping reforms and superb performance in the Ramos era got him the job of IMF consultant on customs reform.
Guess what: Aquino put Parayno not in BoC, but in a largely powerless finance undersecretary post. Evidently, Aquino did not care for reform in Customs, as the unprecedented smuggling under him showed.
Not to mention the suspension meted by Malacañang against a deputy customs commissioner for intelligence who blew the whistle when just 600 of the 2,500 vanished containers had gone missing. Go figure.
Things were supposed to change dramatically under President Rodrigo Duterte, but the supposedly reformist Nicanor Faeldon and his fellow Magdalo ex-mutineers greatly disappointed.
Last May, the country’s largest shipment of smuggled shabu ever got in uninspected via the “green lane” system centrally administered right in Faeldon’s office.
Tipped off by Chinese police, he and other BoC officers raided the Valenzuela warehouse where the contraband went. But gross violations of law and protocol, including Faeldon’s failure to alert the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency, then under Lapeña, compromised the operation.
Hence, it took months before charges were filed, and only after Congress investigated the P6.4-billion shabu smuggling. That fiasco cost Faeldon and his mistahs their jobs.
Lapeña cleans up Customs
How did Commissioner Lapeña clean up Faeldon’s mess? With no-nonsense uncompromising toughness and hands-on management.
First, the former general, who served 34 years in the police, set clear priorities: stop corruption, raise revenue collection, enhance trade facilitation, strengthen anti-smuggling efforts, and boost incentive rewards and compensation. Then he himself went to work, visiting 24 ports in his first 100 days.
“I do not care about the past,” said the Philippine Military Academy alumnus (Maagap Class of 1973). “But I am here to institute changes.”
Lapeña did not flinch at unpopular measures, like closing the green lane for review, even if importers complained of the slowdown in cargo releases. And he told BoC officials and staff that if they screwed up, they’re out.
Results of his “one-strike” policy: 38 officials moved in his first week on the job, including district collectors in Cebu, Iloilo, Zamboanga, Subic, and San Fernando, La Union.
Ten of them were taken off the field and frozen in the Compliance Monitoring Unit, while 151 officials and staff were reshuffled.
Plus: P263 million smuggled agricultural products and P141 million in luxury cars seized, P71 million in illegal drugs interdicted, and P5.3 billion worth of fake goods busted.
No wonder monthly collections shot through the roof, hitting a record P46.4 billion, up from P35 billion; and an unprecedented daily take of P3.8 billion, P2 billion more than before.
Business people dealing with Customs applaud Lapeña’s hands-on style. When importers complained about staff getting payoffs just to let containers and trucks exit, he himself looked into the scams, and ordered erring people out.
While hitting bigtime contraband, he did not delay gifts and other items sent by overseas Filipino workers. He released some 300 containers of balikbayan boxes held up by Faeldon, arguing that the big smuggling wasn’t there.
Uncompromising toughness, sweeping personnel changes, and concern for ordinary people: that is Lapeña’s formula for deep reform, from which Secretary Duque, another 60-something chief, could learn. The DoH may well need it.