Customs exec: Early info on ‘shabu’ smuggling ignored
Customs Commissioner Isidro Lapeña knew as early as May that drug syndicates were planning to slip in illegal drugs through the ports but did not take immediate action then, which allowed six magnetic lifters that contained billions of pesos worth of “shabu” (crystal meth) to enter the country, according to a Customs official.
Two of the lifters that arrived in June were abandoned at the Manila International Container Terminal (MICT). They were opened on Aug. 7 and found to contain P3.4 billion worth of shabu.
Four identical lifters that arrived in July were found in a warehouse in Cavite province on Aug. 8 already empty of their contents — an estimated P6.8 billion worth of shabu.
An Aug. 6 letter from Customs Deputy Commissioner Ricardo Quinto to Lapeña indicated that the Bureau of Customs (BOC) and the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency (PDEA) had been working together since May on an intelligence operation regarding the possible importation of illegal drugs from Malaysia, Vietnam, Hong Kong and China.
Customs Deputy Collector Ma. Lourdes Mangaoang said the letter contradicted Lapeña’s earlier statement that the BOC could have halted the release from the MICT of the four magnetic lifters if it had received “timely” information from the PDEA.
No alert order
Mangaoang, who earlier alleged that Lapeña could be involved in a cover-up of the smuggling, wondered why the Customs chief did not issue any alert order on suspicious shipments from the four countries earlier.
The two magnetic lifters seized by the BOC originated from Malaysia, while the four emptied-out lifters found by the PDEA in a warehouse in Cavite province came from Vietnam.
Both shipments passed through Taiwan before heading to Manila.
Lapeña could not be reached for comment on Mangaoang’s allegations, but in a statement on Friday, he said that he had ordered an investigation after the first two magnetic lifters were discovered to contain shabu.
He also said that the four other magnetic lifters found in Cavite “went through proper Customs clearance.”
He added that all X-ray images were submitted to the House and the Senate committees investigating the shabu smuggling.
Mangaoang, however, said Lapeña and other Customs officials showed darkened images of the magnetic lifters, different from the pictures she showed to the Inquirer on Saturday that clearly outlined their hollow parts that were packed with “something.”
Customs standard operating procedures require a physical inspection of shipments of hollow objects, which she said wasn’t done with the lifters.
The BOC had claimed that without prior intelligence information from the PDEA, it was “impossible” for their personnel to determine whether the magnetic lifters contained any contraband.
Mangaoang, who headed the Customs X-ray inspection project (XIP) for five years until 2013, dismissed the claim.
She said that in the past they were able to apprehend close to P17 billion worth of contraband “through X-ray alone and with no intelligence information.”
‘Meant to deceive’
Mangaoang alleged that the darkened X-ray images that Lapeña and other BOC officials showed to the public and lawmakers were “meant to deceive.”
Days after the four magnetic lifters were discovered, Lapeña ordered the relief of MICT district collector Vener Baquiran. Mangaoang, however, wondered why Lapeña spared XIP chief Zsae de Guzman.
Mangaoang also questioned why Lapeña needed to rely on the PDEA for intelligence support on interdicting drugs considering that he had all the manpower he needed and “hundreds of millions in intelligence funds.”
“He has a deputy commissioner for intelligence, a Customs intelligence and investigation service director, a division chief for intelligence, 300 intelligence agents, a Customs anti-illegal drugs task force. Why didn’t he activate them? Why rely on PDEA when it is the BOC which has access to information of importations,” she said.
PDEA Director General Aaron Aquino told the Inquirer that BOC intelligence officer Jimmy Guban was involved in the case buildup from the start.
Guban told lawmakers in a hearing that he had coordinated with then PDEA National Capital Region Director Ismael Fajardo Jr. and then Senior Supt. Eduardo Acierto of the Philippine National Police Civil Security Group regarding the shipment.
“Since the start and till the end, they were the three people working on that case,” Aquino said. “So if [the BOC] needed intelligence information, they should have gotten it from Guban, who was with their intelligence unit.”
“If there was an intelligence gap, the problem must have been because it was not relayed by Guban,” Aquino added.
Order to coordinate
He said Fajardo had first texted him about the shipment from Malaysia arriving at the MICT as early as March 21. He then directed Fajardo to coordinate with the BOC, but “I assume that at the time of the text, it’s likely they [Fajardo, Guban and Acierto] already talked about it.”
On Oct. 10, the day Mangaoang testified in the Senate, Malacañang released a “special report” alleging that Guban, Fajardo and Acierto were members of a drug syndicate. Fajardo had already been dismissed from the PDEA.
In a statement on Saturday, the PDEA said large amounts of shabu seized across the country from July to October had the same “synthetic impurities” and “production method” as those intercepted at the MICT.
This has led the agency to believe these were the shabu that slipped out of Customs and hauled out of the four magnetic lifters found in Cavite.
This finding also supported Aquino’s claim that shabu is “flooding” the streets as indicated by the sudden drop in the price, from P6,800 in July to P1,400 per gram in October.
Mangaoang said she had hesitated speaking out about what she knew, until she was called by the Senate.
“In truth I’m really afraid. I don’t want to pick a fight with my boss,” she said. “But I won’t wait for me to be held in contempt.”
Asked what she hoped to get out of her “exposé,” Mangaoang said she only wanted to get the truth out and did not care what happened to Lapeña.
“And the truth is [the magnetic lifters] contained shabu and there is physical evidence, documentary and testimonial evidence which will prove that,” she said.
Mangaoang stressed that despite all that was happening in the BOC, she still believed in President Duterte’s campaign to eradicate the illegal drug trade.
“But he can’t do that with Lapeña, because Lapeña and his people are either incompetent or they are in collusion,” she said. —With a report from Jaymee T. Gamil
Subscribe to INQUIRER PLUS to get access to The Philippine Daily Inquirer & other 70+ titles, share up to 5 gadgets, listen to the news, download as early as 4am & share articles on social media. Call 896 6000.