Briefing on security: The smuggling threat

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Third in a series covering national concerns

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While the most prominent national security is territorial frictions with China, it is imperative to assess and address an equally, if not more worrisome danger to the nation. This assault on our borders is not just highly pernicious, but has already compromised security for decades, and more than ever in recent years — smuggling.

Besides fueling crime and criminal elements, contraband also undermines national security. For starters, securing borders is indispensable in protecting territory and citizenry. So the country faces a full-fledged national security concern in the trebling of smuggling under President Benigno Aquino 3rd to an estimated and unprecedented $26 billion last year, as shown by International Monetary Fund trade data cited in this column’s crime report last Saturday.

Plainly, if corruption, incompetence or outright treason among customs and immigration authorities give transnational crime syndicates and hostile foreign powers free rein in bringing in perilous people and destructive implements and materials through land, sea and air, then anything from narcotics and explosives to biological and chemical agents can come in, not to mention spies and soldiers.

Rampant smuggling undermines the nation
Among seven fundamental elements of national security cited by a De La Salle University study, at least four could be compromised by corrupted border controls: socio-political stability, territorial integrity, economic solidarity and strength, ecological balance, and external peace.

Rebels, terrorists, and foreign agents can bring in weapons and other anti-social items. Smugglers hurt local farmers, workers and industries, and rob the government needed revenues, including its share of gold and other mineral exports. Contraband can include banned substances, flora and fauna destructive to Philippines ecology and health, as well as endangered species, timber, and other items banned from export.

The US National Security Council cited solid border controls as a key strategy in its 2011 policy paper, “Strategy to Combat Transnational Organized Crime,” which the NSC cited as “a growing threat to national and international security.”

Among the pernicious activities: drug, human and weapons trafficking through poorly policed and monitored borders. The paper estimated unrecorded firearms trade at 10-20 percent of the total trade of $1.58 billion in 2006, citing the U.N. Office of Drugs and Crime report, “The Globalization of Crime.” And large smuggling of weapons and related items are intercepted by US crimebusters, including shipments to the Philippines.

Yet the Philippines’ own NSC rarely, if ever, discusses smuggling as a major threat, even when more than 2,000 cargo containers disappeared in transit between Manila and other ports in 2011. (The full council with administration and opposition leaders has never met under Aquino, even on China tensions, but that’s a separate issue.)

That unprecedented flood of containerized contraband, never investigated by the Aquino administration or its appointed Ombudsman Conchita Carpio Morales, almost surely included 20-footers packed with guns and drugs, whose street prices fell during that record spate of smuggling, according to the late national police chief and transportation secretary Leandro Mendoza.

When top-level sleaze harms security
When incumbent administrations are reluctant to discuss smuggling as a national security concern, it is almost surely because the scourge has become a major source of political funding. The next president will have to resist this temptation to profit from massive smuggling, even if national security is gravely compromised.

Based on IMF trade data, contraband under Aquino topped $80 billion in the past four years, the highest ever. Just the evaded value-added tax alone on those undeclared or undervalued shipments is P432 billion, not counting excise, luxury, and other levies. In his 2013 State of the Nation Address, presumably covering his first two and a half years in office, President Aquino said lost revenues due to smuggling reached P200 billion.

He could have prevented such losses right from the start of his rule. The two people Aquino interviewed for the post of Bureau of Customs Commissioner included former BoC chief Guillermo Parayno, whose successful stint during the Ramos years not only made Customs among the least corrupt agencies, based on opinion surveys then, but also earned Parayno an IMF contract as international consultant on customs reform.

But Aquino did not put Parayno in Customs, though the latter’s protege, Kim Henares, took over and did creditably at the Bureau of Internal Revenue. Nor did Aquino press his four BoC appointees to investigate rampant smuggling, not even the 2,000 containers vanished in 2011. That would have been so easy to probe, since officials signed papers releasing each and every box, and could be held liable for not stopping the losses after, say, 50 disappearances.

Nor did Aquino stand behind his third Customs Commissioner John Sevilla when the reforming BoC head complained of political pressure against his anti-smuggling drive before resigning in April. Now, incumbent Commissioner Alberto Lina, back on the job after a brief stint during the Arroyo administration a decade ago, wants to target balikbayan boxes.

Without presidential backing, however, no anti-smuggling campaign will make much headway. In the 1990s, then President Fidel Ramos supported Parayno in instituting a computerized risk assessment system of green, yellow and red lanes, and rewards for Customs agents and other parties who provide intelligence on smuggling. That kept legitimate trade flowing fast, while stanching known contrabandits. And it brought BoC’s graft ranking from third among surveyed agencies to below 30th.

Restoring and upgrading the Ramos-era system, which was subsequently perverted to give illicit traders free rein, must be a top priority of the next government. So should a more stringent monitoring of about 100 private ports around the country, mostly with just one Customs official watching.

For sure, it’s impossible to completely secure a coastline twice as long as America’s. But with proper systems and management — backed by Malacañang’s political will — the main cargo channels can be far better safeguarded against smugglers.

Otherwise, territorial integrity, peace and order, economic and ecological interests, and other national security tenets shall continue being sacrificed to line the pockets of the powers that be.

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6 Comments

  1. It will be next to impossible for this administration of curb smuggling. The authorities knows who the bigtime smugglers are, but they are untouchable because they are part
    of the notorious KKK. It people endorsed by this administration wins in the forthcoming election. Philippines will go to drain and probably will cause a nationwide uprising.
    People in the like of DE LIMA, GUINGONA, TRILLANES, CAYETANO will not contribute any good for the country. What they know is to destroy the integrity of others to promote their own agenda.
    I have been observing the events happening in our country. If only I have the means to promote and preserve the integrity of the people being ruin by these selfish and vendictive personalities, I will spend my whole life doing it. Unfortunately the only contribution that I can do is to talk to my fellow OFWs and request them to relay the truth to their relatives and friends.
    Noong una idol ko si Pimentel, pero ngayon naging sunod-sunuran siya sa tatlong kasama niyang mga sinungaling. Si Trillanes at Cayetano kung magsalita, akala mo kung gaano KALINIS pero kung tutuusin mo sila ang pinakamaruming politico sa ating bansa.

  2. Let us say there are some technical smuggling in the balik bayan boxes but how much can you really load in a box. Even drug smugglers will have a 2nd look to use this system because of the risk of contamination of the product since it takes a minimum of 60 days from point of origin. In the United States where more than 50 percent of balikbayan boxes are coming only a foolish drug dealer will ship his product to the Philippines when it can be sold higher in America. The largest shipper in the US is LBC where they have vast network in the whole country and in almost every cities including unknown city of Fresno and Delano in California. Commissioner Bert Lina is in this forwarding business and his move to inspect the boxes is highly suspicious because it can delay the deliveries of LBC which is his main unbeatable competitor. If Lina is trying to tell us gun smuggling thru boxes these are high risk because one has to disassemble it into part and shipped into different boxes but the numbers is immaterial is not enough to arm a platoon of rebels. Better think of something else Bert because this will further unsell Mar Roxas. Ayaw na tao kay Mar iinisin mo pa kaming pinadadalhan ng balikbayan boxes. Galit ka ata kay Mar?

    • Nestor Baylan on

      The only security threat to the country as far as I am concerned are the gun running activities of our soldiers and police officers and smuggling of weapons from Mindanao to armed Muslim rebels rather than those balikbayan boxes coming mostly from the US. I am from NY and evertime I send a package it is x-rayed and I have to declare the contents. It is far- fetched that guns could find their way in those boxes. If ever I send a sneaker it is purchased from discount stores. Normally balikbayans send hand-me- down items. Luxury items in balikbayan boxes? You must be pulling my leg!

  3. ITO ANG LEGACY NI PNOY AT MGA TAO NIYA ng umupo sila tumatakbo ng maayos MRT pasok ROXAS sa DOTC nilagay si Vitangcol sinipa SUMITOMO result puro aberya ENTER ABAYA lalong lumala..DPWH, MMDA, DENR wala din BOC nagging grabe puedeng ilagay sa guiness book dahil 2,000 container vans nawala at di na nakita. Enter Lina buksan OFW boxes to make sure na walang drugs, kontrabando at WEAPONS OF MASS DESTRUCTIONS..SANAMAGAN

  4. So they finally did something about smuggling. They are going to steal the contents of OFW boxes.