Third in a series covering national concerns
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.