President Duterte and the great P6.4B shabu smuggling case cover-up

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RACHEL A.G. REYES

A REVOLUTIONARY government, President Duterte says, shuts down everything—Congress, the Supreme Court, and a free press. The Constitution is suspended. Should the President take this despotic step, it would call a convenient halt to all the current damning investigations into his bank accounts, and the alleged smuggling connections of his family and Davao cronies.

But already we are seeing little scrutiny, zero accountability, zero redress, and near total impunity. The multi-billion-peso shabu drug smuggling case provides the perfect illustration of this.

On May 16, the Guang Ping, a Chinese-owned ship arrived at the Manila International Container Port in Tondo. Coming from China, the ship carried five steel cylinders, each a foot in diameter, and each stuffed with bags of shabu, worth a staggering total of P6.4 billion ($124 million). A customs broker named Teejay Marcellana recorded the cargo with the Bureau of Customs (BOC) as kitchenware; Eirene Tatad, a trading consignee, paid the taxes and duties. Larribert Hilario, a customs risk officer whose duty it was to encode the shipment into the BOC system, failed to do his job. The cargo was sent on its merry way through the BOC’s green lane, or express lane. A truck came and spirited the cargo out of the port to a couple of warehouses, about 17 kilometers away, in Valenzuela, where it arrived on May 24.

The shipper was Chinese businessman Richard Tan, also known as Chen Ju Long, and owner of a business called Hong Fei Philippines. Tan claimed Chinese customs authorities in Xiamen informed him that the shipment contained drugs. He contacted the BOC and met with Customs Intelligence director Neil Estrella in a car outside one of the Valenzuela warehouses. They entered the warehouse and discovered the drugs inside one of the steel cylinders. Officers of the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency (PDEA) were later called, along with barangay officials, BOC agents, and the media. Fidel Anoche Dee, the warehouse caretaker, was ordered to open the crates containing the cylinders.


According to Dee, this shabu shipment was one of four. The first arrived in June 2016, the second in January 2017, and the third in March 2017. Altogether the four shipments comprised 23 crates of shabu worth P28.9billion. The first three shipments—two tons of shabu valued at P22.5billion—have vanished.

Nonetheless, the drug bust was deemed a success. Dee, the warehouse caretaker, was promptly arrested. Nicanor Faeldon, the BOC director appointed by President Duterte, proudly declared: “Our level of effective information sharing with China customs sends a strong warning to all those involved in the drug trade.” Accompanied by Tan and Estrella, he then took a quick trip to China on unspecified business.

If the events are simple enough to sketch out, the rest of this story—going by what was revealed by the many tortuous, often shocking, Senate committee hearings that went on over the past few months—reads much like an eco-system where predators, parasites, and cut-throats, thrive in a noxious swamp of gross incompetence, greed and ruthless, unrelenting corruption. At the top of the food chain are those closest to the President.

Working our way up, then, let’s start with the butt-kissers. In a privilege speech delivered on August 23, Sen. Panfilo Lacson described a “tara” system in which bribe and grease money formed a structural part of the way the BOC operated. Lacson’s list of high-ranking Customs officers known to receive tara included Faeldon and two of his close comrades, Gerardo Gambala, the deputy commissioner, and Milo Maestrecampo, director of import assessment, both of whom resigned.

None of these men said anything of any consequence. When questioned by Sen. Antonio Trillanes, Faeldon couldn’t hold back his tears, which rendered him inarticulate. A number of ailments kept him from attending the hearings and from talking.

There were rewards for keeping quiet. Two weeks ago, the President saw it fit to appoint Gambala and Maestrecampo to posts within the Department of Transportation. Based on a memo issued by the President in mid-October, the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) was prevented from searching for any further evidence that might be used against Faeldon.

On November 22, the Department of Justice, in a wave of exonerations, cleared the three men of all charges, dismissed the complaints on the other half dozen or so Customs officers implicated by Lacson, “for lack of probable cause,” as well as cleared NBI operatives.

The middlemen and fixers is where things get really interesting. Finding that his own neck was on the line, Mark Taguba, the fixer, turned snitch. He did a lot of finger pointing, “named names,” and read out incriminating text messages from his phone.

First off, somebody called Tita Nanie, Taguba said, introduced him to members of the “Davao Group.” She is described as the negotiator and coordinator for the group. Her communications with Taguba demonstrated her considerable clout at the BOC. She ensured shipment clearances and tara amounts. She also had influence in the government, even as far as enjoying a direct line to the President’s chief of staff, Christopher “Bong” Go. Yet, bizarrely, no one could figure out who she was.

There was Nilo “Small” Abellera, the Davao city councilor and friend of Paolo Duterte, the President’s eldest son. Taguba described him as Paolo’s “handler.” There was Kenneth Dong, the Chinese nightclub owner from Cebu, a man remarkably susceptible to histrionics and tears. He was Richard Tan’s middleman and friend of Paolo. There was a man named “Jack” whom Taguba said was the friend and “handler” of Paolo. There was Charlie Tan, the owner of a bar in Davao City who, Lacson said, gave bribes to BOC officers, and who was also a friend and “drinking buddy” of Paolo. There was Mans, identified as Mans Carpio, the lawyer and husband of Sara, the President’s daughter. Finally, there was the President’s son, Paolo, nicknamed “Pulong.” That particular name cropped up in three text messages between Taguba and Tita Nanie.

Pulong had been on the NBI’s radar since 2007. An NBI disposition form filed in April 2007 stated that he smuggled rice, used clothes, and luxury cars. He was known to have allegedly used the power and influence of his father to avoid arrest, and was said to enjoy the protection of corrupt BOC officers and police.

On September 7, Pulong and Mans attended the Senate hearing at which Senator Trillanes accused Pulong of being a member of Chinese triad, one of many branches of a transnational organized crime syndicate. The senator demanded he show the tattoo on his back. Pulong refused. And there the matter rests.

The draft report produced by the Senate blue ribbon committee, publicly circulated last month, was equivalent to a rap on the knuckles. An “overhaul” of the BOC was urged; “lifestyle checks” on Paolo Duterte and Mans Carpio were recommended.

President Duterte knows all the key people in this shabu smuggling case. Some are even his intimates. But no further investigations have been ordered. The identities of “Tita Nanie” and “Jack” are still to be ascertained. And nobody is looking for them.

rachelagreyes@gmail.com

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