Barbers wants to get to the bottom of ‘Tapioca-gate’

Published December 2, 2020, 6:41 PM

by Ellson Quismorio

House Committee on Dangerous Drugs chairman, Rep. Robert Ace Barbers of Surigao del Norte isn’t about to let “Tapioca-gate” go.

Rep. Robert Barbers

This, as Barbers expressed his backing for a resolution seeking a House inquiry on the alleged failure of Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency (PDEA) and Bureau of Customs (BoC) officers some 23 months ago to detect the presence of illegal drugs inside aluminum containers.

The declared contents of the containers, described a pallets, was tapioca starch. They were consigned to Goroyam Rice Trading, as indicated in House Resolution (HR) No.1330 filed by Party-List Reps. Eric Go Yap of ACT-CIS, Sandro Gonzalez of MARINO, and Claudine Diana Bautista of Dumper-PTDA.

Barbers said that based on media reports and narratives made by the BoC and PDEA, the shipment in question arrived in the country in January, 2019.

Tapioca starch, known locally as “sago” often used in sweet drinks and desserts, is made from the root of the cassava plant. Although it can be used as flour for baking, it is mainly used as a thickener.

Barbers said that after the arrival of the aluminum pallets, the consignee changed its name and was approved by Manila International Container Port (MICP). However, the items were forfeited in favor of the government due to the lack of an entry pass.

While an auction for the shipment was being scheduled, PDEA claimed that there was “shabu”–also called methamphetamine hydrochloride or poor man’s cocaine–inside it. PDEA and BoC then examined the shipment at the MICP.

“Ang nakapagtataka, pagkatapos ng examination nuong March 5, 2019, sinabi ng BoC at PDEA sa kanilang report na yung mga (What’s strange is that after the examination on March 5, 2019, the BoC and PDEA said in their report that the) ‘specimens collected and submitted do not contain any dangerous drugs, controlled precursors and essential chemicals),'” Barbers noted.

The MICP scheduled the shipment’s auction on April 22, 2019 wherein Goldwin Commercial was declared as the winning bidder. Three tranches of delivery (20 sacks of tapioca starch inside 10 aluminum pallets for each tranche) were received by Goldwin at Goldwin Commercial Warehouse in Barangay Santolan, Malabon City the following month.

Then on May 23, 2019, Goldwin reported to Customs the discovery of white crystalline substance coming out of the aluminum bar of the pallet. The MICP directed its port personnel to conduct an operation.

An inventory operation by PDEA resulted in the confiscation of 30 pallets with 114 hollow bars, with each containing an average of 1.5 kilos of shabu. The total yield was 171 kilos of the illegal substance, which was valued at P1,162,800,000.

The Dangerous Drugs panel chair said the BoC made it appear in their “narratives and press releases” that they intentionally released the tapioca shipment to lure or draw out possible members of the drug ring who may be interested in bidding.

“Ang sabi pa ng BoC, wala raw shabu at tapioca lang ang lumabas sa BoC premises. Ang problema, nagpalabas ang PDEA ng ulat na naka-recover sila ng (The BoC futher said that no shabu exited its premises, only tapioca. But the problem is, PDEA said in a report that they recovered) P1.1-billion worth of shabu concealed in aluminum pallets in a tapioca starch shipment from the Goldwin warehouse in Malabon City,” he added.

In September this year, the National Bureau of Investigation’s Task Force Against Illegal Drugs (TFAID) subpoenaed the PDEA agents who conducted the examination of the three 20-footer vans at the MICP Designated Examination Area in March 2019.

On October 15, 2020, verification with the District Tactical Operation Center of Northern Police District revealed that PDEA made no coordination to conduct its supposed “controlled delivery” in May last year to the Goldwin Warehouse in Malabon.