• God, Abraham and the Bureau of Customs

    Ricardo Saludo
    Ricardo Saludo

    At a dinner this week with a Jesuit priest and former classmate, this writer remarked that last Sunday’s first reading about Abraham bargaining with God to spare Sodom well applies to the Bureau of Customs (BoC). After God agreed not to rain fire and brimstone upon the city, where Abraham’s brother Lot lived with his family, if there were 50 good citizens there, Abraham pressed the Almighty to desist for even fewer upright souls.

    “Oh do not let the Lord be angry if I speak just once more. Suppose ten are found there.” He answered, “For the sake of ten I will not destroy it.”

    One can’t help thinking that the BoC is held to a similar low standard: just ten good men to save a hugely corrupt organization. After all, the agency watching cargo going in and out of the country has stayed around all these decades despite mega-controversies, from the 1960s Harry Stonehill contraband and corruption expose, to the rampant smuggling admitted by President Benigno Aquino 3rd in his State of the Nation Address last week.

    Going back to the reading from the Book of Genesis, Chapter 18, it is now publicly proclaimed after decades of being silently abetted that there are many Abrahams close to the powers that be, pleading to spare Customs because they have relations, friends, allies, even bagmen there. For Abraham, it didn’t matter that, as the Lord God said, “How great is the outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah and how very grave their sin!” So it is for the padrinos of those lording it over inspections at ports and airports.

    But there’s one big difference. God took action against the evil in the two depraved cities. But in the Bureau of Customs, no real solution has been or will be done.

    God told Abraham: “I must go down and see whether they have done altogether according to the outcry that has come to me; and if not, I will know.” But in truth, the all-knowing Lord already knew how hopelessly perverse Sodom and Gomorrah had become. Thus, in agreeing to spare Sodom if even a handful of innocents were found there, God was certain there weren’t even the ten for whom Abraham had haggled.

    The gods of the government have also long known how bad things are in Customs. After all, smuggling has long been a leading source of political and personal largesse, along with tax evasion, kickbacks, jueteng, and other big-time bribery.

    Even President Aquino has long been well aware of padrinos and their accomplices in the agency, judging from a report at the height of last year’s impeachment that the Palace stopped Customs Commissioner Ruffy Blazon from firing two BoC officers whose patrons were senators needed to convict then Chief Justice Renato Corona.

    Nor can Aquino claim with credibility that he doesn’t know that his top aide, Executive Secretary Paquito Ochoa, and his staunch House ally, Speaker Sonny Belmonte, are patrons of two so-called customs kings, as widely known now. If the President doesn’t know what such close associates are doing in a key agency like the BoC, then he is negligently, if not dangerously clueless about his own officialdom.

    But in fact, from his first month in office, Aquino knew where Customs was headed, just as he did the jueteng problem. On illegal gambling, no less than its leading crusader, Archbishop Emeritus Oscar Cruz, told the nation in televised Senate hearings in September 2010 that PNoy shooting buddy, then Interior undersecretary Rico Puno, was the “ultimate recipient” of jueteng payoffs, along with then Philippine National Police Chief Jesus Versoza. Yet the President absolved Puno without investigation and let him continue overseeing the PNP, the main agency tasked with fighting the numbers game.

    As for Customs, Aquino had the change to replicate the unprecedented cleanup done in Customs during the Ramos administration. One of the men interviewed for the job of BoC head was former Customs and Bureau of Internal Revenue commissioner Guillermo Parayno, whose protege Kim Henares has boosted BIR collections.

    Graduating No. 4 in his Philippine Military Academy class, the former naval officer became the youngest Customs chief in 1992, at age 44, after many years in the agency. Under his watch, the BoC improved in public surveys from being among the three most corrupt agencies to among the least corrupt of those evaluated.

    Parayno also computerized trade processing, which facilitated cargo clearance and tariff collection, and drastically reduced corruption. No less than the International Monetary Fund affirmed Parayno’s integrity and expertise by hiring him as consultant for customs reform after his stint at the agency ended with the Ramos presidency.

    If PNoy wanted to clean up Customs, raise its collections, and reduce smuggling and corruption, he should have appointed Parayno, as this columnist and many others have urged. But Aquino had other plans for the agency, which his two appointees to the top job have accomplished.

    Thus, when several thousands of containers disappeared in transit between Manila and Batangas ports in 2010-11, Aquino ordered no investigation. Just as he never followed up the jueteng crackdown he assigned to then Local Government Secretary Jesse Robredo amid Archbishop Cruz’s accusations against his longtime friend Puno.

    Now, the President has used the SONA to show his supposed commitment to fight sleaze. As this writer noted a month ago (July 3 column), the pseudo-cleanup at Customs, like the high-profile investigation of pork barrel anomalies, are part of a media blitz to bury recent disturbing stories about corruption under Aquino.

    Last month, in the latest Transparency International survey, three out of five respondents said corruption has stayed the same or gotten worse under PNoy. And this newspaper exposed an alleged attempt to extort $30 million from Czech railcar company Inekon by a group including Aquino’s sister Ballsy and her husband.

    Will the current Customs revamp bear fruit? What about the pork barrel probe? More than punishing some scapegoats, real reform requires drastic changes in the rules and processes that make corruption easy, if not unavoidable. Parayno reduced graft by computerizing corruption-prone procedures. And pork barrel will never end while the law made by senators and congressmen exempt them from strict auditing procedures.

    When an angel told Lot and his family to flee Sodom before its destruction, they were warned not to look back. Sadly, Lot’s wife did and was turned into a pillar of salt. The same fate awaits this purported Customs reform unless it stops looking back at old ways and truly institutes the sweeping changes needed to advance integrity. But that may not be what President Aquino and his allies want.


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