Despite the global health crisis that hampered most public operations in the country, various smuggling cases and the fight against corruption in the Bureau of Customs carried on throughout the year.
Close to 200 corruption cases were filed by the Customs bureau before investigation agencies in the country against its own personnel.
The order of Customs Commissioner Rey Leonardo Guerrero to investigate, file cases, and major revamp within the bureau has resulted in a total of 192 cases filed before the Ombudsman, Department of Justice, and National Bureau of Investigation.
It further led to the dismissal of 20 personnel, suspension of four personnel with four more being reprimanded, Guerrero revealed late this year.
“To fight graft and corruption, investigations were conducted, and cases were filed against errant customs employees,” he said.
From January 2019 to Oct. 26, 2020, a total of 135 personnel were investigated by the Customs Intelligence and Investigation Service over alleged corruption activities while show-cause orders were served to 228 customs personnel.
A massive relief and reshuffling of Customs personnel was also initiated. Since January this year, more than 700 personnel have been reshuffled to various offices, of which 62 were relieved from duty or on floating status.
Guerrero said this aims to send “a clear and firm message to all Customs personnel doing unlawful activities that the bureau will be relentless, unwavering, and serious with its efforts to weed out misfits in the agency.”
Creative ways of smuggling contraband
Smugglers continue to be creative in sneaking in their contraband into the country amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
In October, a shipment of P1.632-billion shabu or meth from Malaysia was seized at the Port of NAIA.
The smugglers tried to conceal the drug shipment by stuffing the illegal drugs in tea packs and declaring it as “work bench tables.”
The Customs bureau said it was shipped by Ywlee 87 Trading of Subang Jaya in Selangor, Malaysia and consigned to a certain company identified as Allejam International Trading.
The operation resulted to the arrest of two Chinese claimants in Cabanatuan City.
Authorities then said that the two claimants, whose identities were withheld, are the “sources of illegal drugs” in Nueva Ecija, stressing that the shipment was “intended for the Philippines and not just a transshipment.”
Assistant Commissioner Vincent Philip Maronilla also said that the company was used as a consignee but did not have knowledge on the contents of the cargo.
“It seems that the consignee-company agreed to be used without knowing the contents of the arriving cargoes,” Maronilla said, adding that profit is what drives companies to enter into this kind of setup.
“Shippers are only looking for claimants and most often the claimants or consignees do not know what they are claiming. This shipment does not even have a warehouse, they just pick it outside upon delivery,” Wilkins said.
This year, smuggling of contrabands concealed in packs of coffee beans, stuffed in food cans, some were even hidden in paper shredders, were foiled in various seaports and airports in the country.
In March, a parcel supposed to contain coffee beans was found filled with ecstasy pills worth more than P3.7 million from Utrecht, Netherlands.
In April, a shipment of P13.2-M marijuana concealed in cans of healthy meal formula from California, USA was intercepted at the Port of Clark.
In June, thousands of tablets of ecstasy worth P9 million were found concealed in a paper shredder shipped from the United Kingdom to a warehouse in Pasay City.
In the same month, a shipment of “art work” from California, USA turned out to be bags of marijuana worth P1.1 million. It was seized at the Port of Clark.
In July, P600,000 worth of shabu was found hidden in parcels of puzzle and game boards from the United States. The parcel was shipped through a delivery service in Pasay City and intended for a distribution in Albay and Cabanatuan City.
Also in July, more than half a kilo of shabu worth P4.5 million stuffed in chocolate tin cans was found hidden in a parcel declared as toys from Las Vegas, Nevada.
Smuggling of cigarettes through various entries in the country was rampant this year as numerous shipments of smuggled and counterfeit cigarettes, including warehouses used in manufacturing, were seized and dismantled.
In January, P58-million fake and smuggled cigarettes were uncovered in parked trucks in Caloocan City.
The bureau then said that the illegal products bearing brands such as Marvels, Fortune, D&B, Mighty, and Jackpot cigarettes “are believed to have a big market share in provinces where they are usually sold to unsuspecting patrons.”
Prior to the discovery of the parked vehicles loaded with fake cigarettes, a warehouse allegedly used to manufacture billion-peso worth of counterfeit cigarettes in Nueva Ecija and manned by around 20 Chinese nationals and a hundred Filipino workers was dismantled.
The warehouse was filled with several boxes of fake cigarettes, machines used in manufacturing the counterfeit products, and fake tax stamps estimated to have a value of P1 billion.
Condemnation of millions worth of cigarette haul was also conducted in various parts of the country.
In May, the Port of Zamboanga destroyed 40 tons of smuggled cigarettes worth P245.8 million.
In August, the same port also disposed off over P1-billion fake tax stamps,
smuggled cigarettes, and raw tobacco-making materials.
In the same month, the Port of Cebu also destroyed eight containers of smuggled fake cigarettes worth P374 million.
This December, the bureau condemned its P183-million haul of smuggled cigarettes in Zamboanga since September this year.
A total of 38 shipments containing 5,200 master cases of cigarettes were disposed of.
Smugglers, traders took advantage of the pandemic
In the middle of the enhanced community quarantine in April, illegal traders selling overpriced and smuggled personal protective gears and unregistered medicines, taking advantage of the pandemic were put under watch by the Customs Intelligence group.
In May, an inspection unit composed of Customs agents and Coast Guard men was created to counter smugglers attempting to take advantage of the lax release of shipments containing personal protective gear and other medical supplies amid the coronavirus pandemic.
Guerrero has ordered the creation of a composite team — Inspection Unit — composed of officers from Customs Intelligence and Investigation Service, Enforcement and Security Service, and the Philippine Coast Guard. Its operations are under the bureau’s Enforcement Group.
The inspection unit aims to ensure that no shipments would slip past the bureau as it prioritizes shipments needed in the fight against the coronavirus disease.
The inspection unit is tasked to “target and inspect shipments or containers in any of the Ports of Entry, regardless of the selectivity of the shipment and at any stage of the clearance process, provided it is still within the Customs jurisdiction.”
BOC Command Center activated
Just days before Christmas, a command center for intelligence and enforcement operations covering all ports under the Customs bureau was activated.
The facility is designed to house the different intelligence, enforcement, risk management, and scanning systems of the Customs bureau.
It will also oversee the intelligence database, electronic tracking of containerized cargo (E-TRACC) and the vessel monitoring system.
The command center will also have the capabilities to utilize the universal risk management system and provide remote access to the scanning or x-ray systems of the bureau under the X-ray Inspection Project.
It will likewise serve as a fusion center to integrate and analyze intelligence, enforcement and operational information gathered from various sources. The IT-integrated facility will be manned 24/7 by personnel of the enforcement security and services and the Philippine Coast Guard.
Customs Commissioner Rey Leonardo Guerrero underscored that “the facility is an important tool for the Bureau of Customs, being a border protection unit of the country continuously working to deliver its mandate of securing the borders along with facilitation of trade and collection of lawful revenues.”