IT is enormously difficult to follow the Senate hearings on the Bureau of Customs drug smuggling scandal. Senate blue ribbon committee chair Sen. Richard Gordon’s style of questioning is tortuous and meandering. He also has a tendency to wield the long-handled gavel far too often, banging it down to suspend and resume proceedings whenever the mood takes him. His pomposity, bombast and flannel pumps clouds of fog into already confusing proceedings. We must not be distracted by Gordon’s obfuscations. We must stay with the point: President Rodrigo Duterte’s eldest son, Paolo, the vice mayor of Davao City, and the President’s son-in-law, lawyer Mans Carpio, have both been implicated in the scandal. And Sen. Antonio Trillanes wants them summoned for questioning.
There are three basic facts to be grasped at the outset. The first is that the shipment of the illegal drug methamphetamine hydrochloride, or shabu, which arrived at the Manila international container port in Tondo last May, came from China. The shipment contained more than 600 kilograms of shabu and is valued atP6.4 billion. The second fact is that the Bureau of Customs (BoC) is a yawning pit of unslakable avarice and corruption. The third fact is that the government loses P98.5 billion each year in customs revenue due to corruption.
The drug shipment was fast-tracked through the BoC “super green lane.” This selection channel is reserved for goods that do not require inspection and document verification. Customs officials ought to have been on red alert as soon as it was known where the shipment originated and the mode by which it had been packed—metal canisters stuffed with hundreds of plastic bags filled with white powder. The canisters should have been opened and x-rayed. The extent to which the BoC turned a blind eye is truly astounding.
The procedure out of the port was simple enough. A Customs broker claimed the cargo to be kitchenware; a Customs official failed to input the data into the system; a consignee, a company set up specifically for the purpose of paying duties, dealt with the exit paperwork. Once these formalities were completed, the shipment was transported to warehouses to await collection and distribution.
But the case is tremendously complicated. It involves a cast of characters ranging from high-ranking Customs officials and fixers, to an assortment of bagmen and go-betweens, facilitators and negotiators who are known only by aliases. This intricate web stretches all the way to Davao. Money, in obscene amounts, keeps the web from unraveling.
In his privilege speech to the Senate last week, Sen. Panfilo Lacson detailed the payola system, or “tara”, in which millions of pesos are used to pay off everyone up and down the Customs chain to ensure containers come in and out smoothly. For each 40-foot container, Lacson noted, BoC officials and employees could collect almost P80,000. Neil Estrella, the Customs director of intelligence allegedly uses his own bagman. Milo Maestrecampo, the import assessment officer, had his hands regularly filled with grease money, it is alleged. But at the head of the chain was the Customs chief Nicanor Faeldon. A Duterte appointee and loyalist, Faeldon ironically shares a lot of history with Trillanes. He was a former Marine, a member of the Magdalo group, and one-time coup plotter. He failed to appear at several hearings, wheeling out an impressive array of medical excuses. According to Lacson, Faeldon received bribe money to the tune of P100 million, an amount presented to him as a “welcome gift” when he assumed the Customs post. Faeldon too had his own bagman. When Trillanes asked him whether there was corruption in the bureau, he burst into tears.
Trillanes, however, knows there are bigger fish to fry. The smugglers in this story aspire to be richer than Croesus. The key witness doing all the blabbing is a young man who looks like a repentant thrill-seeker and one who is guided in all his actions by the promise of easy money. Mark Taguba is a “fixer”. He charged P27,000 “tara” money per container. He alleged that a man named Richard Tan, the owner of a company called Hongfei Philippines, was responsible for shipping the shabu from China. He also identified Tan’s middleman and related how Tan flew to China with Faeldon and Estrella after Customs agents seized the shabu shipment. His fingerpointing doesn’t stop at the BoC. He recalled how he wanted ‘in’ on a cohort of smugglers he named the “Davao Group.”
To join this group, Taguba said he had to pay P5 million. Trillanes calls this “goodwill money”. The Davao Group, Taguba alleges, is composed of President Duterte’s son, Paolo; Nilo “Small” Abellera, a Davao City councilor who is good friends with Paolo; Mans Carpio, the lawyer husband of Paolo’s sister, Davao City Mayor Sarah Duterte; someone called “Jack” who functioned as Paolo’s “handler”; and someone Taguba refers to as “Tita Nanie”. To prove his dealings with all these people, Taguba reels off the text message exchanges he had with Tita Nanie. Some of these text messages reveal the industriousness of Carpio and Paolo in clearing the path for arriving shipments.
But one crucial message from Tita Nanie, dated January 11, is particularly incriminating. It assures Taguba that she will make the “final arrangements” with Jack that would seal his association with the Davao Group. She instructs Taguba to advance P1 million so that a meeting with the President’s son could be arranged in Davao. At that meeting, writes Tita Nanie, “u personally turn over d [the]5mln [5 million]…” to Paolo.
Trillanes elicited supporting information from Estrella. Carpio and Paolo, it transpired, have been doing a lot of to-ing and fro-ing to the BoC recently. Estrella confirmed that Carpio had visited five times and Paolo twice. It is difficult to doubt this, especially when the latter has a particularly dark reputation for skullduggery. In his sworn testimony before the Senate in September 2016, Edgar Matobato, the confessed hitman for the so-called Davao Death Squad, recalled how Paolo was involved in drugs and smuggling, and allegedly ordered people killed. He was a boy who would go out drinking with Chinese drug lords in Davao, Matobato said.
Trillanes knows this. And so do we. Gordon has dismissed all this information as “hearsay.” A few days ago, Taguba recanted and issued an apology to the First Family. President Duterte has heaped insult and threat upon Trillanes. Still, Trillanes insists on one point. Carpio and the older Duterte son must appear in the Senate.
The senator is right to insist. Tens of thousands of people have been killed on far less information.