SEN. Antonio Trillanes 4th may be the most vociferous critic of President Duterte, but his comrades-in-arms in the mutineer group “Magdalo”* control the government’s key revenue-generating agency, the Bureau of Customs, holding its top posts.
The head itself of the bureau is former Marine captain Nicanor Faeldon, who was really at the same level in the Magdalo leadership as Trillanes, their spokesman. Faeldon had been the most defiant of the Magdalo leaders, having escaped twice from detention and refusing an offer of pardon.
A day after he was appointed Customs chief, Faeldon himself said that 20 officers that had been with the Magdalo would join Customs, and that “they will be embedded in the different collection districts.”
The bureau has come under intense Senate scrutiny when it was discovered last month that a shipment it had cleared through its “express lane” had contained shabu worth P6.4 billion. The bureau had to scramble to raid the warehouse where the shipment was unloaded, after Chinese authorities in Xiamen tipped the bureau about it.
The Magdalo mutineers’ joining the Bureau of Customs, a notoriously corrupt agency, is in marked contrast to its older version, the Reform the Armed Forces Movement (RAM), that had played a crucial role in the EDSA uprising. Not a single RAM veteran went into government, except for Gringo Honasan, who was elected into office.
The Magdalo mutineers of about 200 tried to overthrow government by occupying by force first, the Oakwood Hotel (now Ascott Makati) in 2003 and then, The Manila Peninsula in 2007, expecting that others in the military and in the opposition would join them in the fashion of the EDSA 1986 uprising. Nobody did, and they surrendered to the police after about 18 hours, after hearing its armored personnel carriers approaching. The coup attempts dented the country’s image of stability, frightening off a significant amount of investments, what with terrified investors finding themselves trapped in the high-end Ascott and Peninsula hotels.
Other than Trillanes and Faeldon, the other Magdalo leaders—classmates in the Philippine Military Academy Class of 1995—who now all occupy key posts at Customs are the following.
• Army Capt. Gerardo Gambala, who is Faeldon and Trillanes’ peer at Magdalo, is deputy commissioner, in charge both of the management information systems and technology group, and head of the bureau’s “Command Center”. The office that approved the shipment that was found later to contain P6.4 billion worth of shabu is under the Command Center.
• Army Capt. Milo Maestrecampo, who became a one-day sensation when he ranted like a mad dog, spewing expletives against government in a Magdalo press conference during the Oakwood mutiny, is director of the Import Assessment Services Office.
• Navy Lt. James Layug, who ran for Kalinga governor but lost in 2010, is director of the crucial Port Operations Services.
• Col. Alvin Ebreo is chief of the bureau’s legal services.
There’s more. Faeldon brought into the bureau several military men not publicly known to be Magdalo mutineers: Col. Neil Estrella, director of the CIIS; Col. Henry Torres, acting deputy commissioner in charge of the internal administration group; and Gen. Natalio Ecarma, deputy commissioner heading the revenue collection and monitoring group.
My sources at Customs claim that Faeldon had brought into the bureau nearly 200 other Magdalo officers and soldiers, employing them as “consultants”. While the Senate committee on dangerous drugs is investigating how the P6.4 billion worth of shabu was cleared by Customs, it might as well seek to find out how many Magdalos there are at Customs now.
In appointing Faeldon as Customs head, Duterte—it is not clear if he is aware that the Magdalo mutineer had brought his other comrades into the bureau—more likely thought that his leading coup attempts against government indicated he had the character of someone committed to reforming the country.
A Magdalo customs official boasted at a Senate hearing yesterday that under them, the bureau had apprehended so and so worth of illegal drugs being smuggled into the country and had banned over 65 brokers suspected of evading taxes due on their shipment.
However, customs revenues under the Magdalo-led bureau haven’t increased at all, with its tax effort (percentage of its revenues to GDP) remaining at 2.6 percent where it has been since the past decade. It would have risen to as high as 3.4 percent (the figure for 2008) if the Magdalos had really cracked down, as they claim, on smuggling and graft in the bureau.
This isn’t surprising. After all, how could a group of men whose expertise is war—and coup plotting—know how to run our Customs Bureau, which essentially requires, other than honesty, management skills as well as expertise in law and accounting?
Worse, brokers say that corruption in the bureau hasn’t changed, that there are only “new faces.” There are rumors in the bureau that a high-ranking official was getting P28 million monthly in grease money from unscrupulous brokers. There is even one rumor circulating wildly that it was Duterte himself who jested at how expensive a Customs official’s Rolex was.
Whether they are incompetent for the job or corrupt, the Magdalo’s control of the bureau poses a danger to Duterte. They could do what the New People’s Army did during the administration of Corazon Aquino, when she appointed a communist sympathizer to the bureau, who let communist cadres control the graft there, consequently raising hundreds of millions of pesos for their revolution.
Never has a government agency, and a money-making one at that, been under the control of a single gang.
As they demonstrated in their coups against President Arroyo’s administration, the Magdalos are such power-seeking megalomaniacs that they would go against Duterte at the drop of a hat, if ever he encounters a strong political storm. It is still their dream, inspired by the successful 2014 Thai coup, to establish authoritarian rule in the country under them.
Duterte should realize that Trillanes has demonstrated what a Magdalo mutineer really is. Trillanes, Faeldon, Gambala, Maestrecampo, and Layug are birds of the same feather. And it is certainly suspicious why the Magdalos in Customs — except Faeldon and only once during the elections — have never criticized Trillanes, nor he, them.
*The mutineers presumptuously called themselves “Bagong Katipuneros” (“New Katipuneros”), referring to the revolutionary organization “Kataastaasan, Kagalanggalang Katipunan ng mga Anak ng Bayan” that led the revolution against Spanish rule in 1896. They were instead dubbed “Magdalo” by the media, as the armbands they wore during their coup attempts was that of the Cavite-based Magdalo faction of the Katipunan.
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