Lapeña sacked as BOC chief amid ‘shabu’ smuggling row
President Duterte on Thursday sacked Customs Commissioner Isidro Lapeña following a dispute between the Bureau of Customs (BOC) and the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency (PDEA) over the smuggling of up to P11 billion worth of “shabu” (crystal meth) through the Port of Manila.
Speaking during ceremonies marking the 117th anniversary of the Philippine Coast Guard, President Duterte said he had replaced Lapeña, ending months of bickering between Lapeña and PDEA Director General Aaron Aquino over who might be held responsible for the shabu smuggling.
Lapeña had been insisting that there was no shabu in the four magnetic lifters found in a warehouse in Cavite province in August after 355 kilos of shabu worth about P4.3 billion were found inside two similar lifters abandoned at Manila International Container Terminal (MICT).
The President had sided with Lapeña, saying Aquino was just “speculating” that the lifters contained shabu.
But during a hearing on Wednesday by the House of Representatives committee on illegal drugs, Lapeña conceded that the four lifters could have contained shabu.
He said he turned around after the Department of Public Works and Highways showed that the way the lifters were configured would not have allowed them to function, indicating that they were shipped to the country only for the purpose of carrying contraband.
Ex-general replaces ex-general
President Duterte appointed retired Gen. Leonardo Guerrero, former chief of staff of the Armed Forces of the Philippines, to replace Lapeña. Guerrero is currently administrator of the Maritime Industry Authority.
The President also ordered the “freezing” of all section, department and unit heads at the BOC.
“Everyone, out. To the last man, out. The commissioners are out, the department heads, out,” he said.
But he said he would “promote (Lapeña) to a Cabinet position” as head of the Technical Education and Skills Development Authority (Tesda).
Lapeña said he was surprised by the announcement and thanked the President “for giving me another opportunity to serve in another capacity.”
Presidential spokesperson Salvador Panelo said Mr. Duterte’s decision was unrelated to the shabu smuggling dispute, adding that the President already had Lapeña “in his mind” as the new Tesda chief.
Customs Deputy Collector Ma. Lourdes Mangaoang, the shabu smuggling whistleblower, said she felt “vindicated and elated” by Lapeña’s statement at the House hearing.
PDEA raises estimate
“I believe that he had no choice but to make such admission because all the pieces of evidence admitted during the hearings of the Senate blue ribbon committee and the (House) dangerous drugs committee point to the fact that the lifters were used to conceal the shabu,” Mangaoang, who headed the BOC X-ray Inspection Project, told the Inquirer.
Mangaoang had testified in the Senate and the House that the four magnetic lifters found in Cavite contained contraband, which probably was shabu.
Earlier on Thursday, Aquino said the PDEA upgraded its estimate that the four lifters had contained only about 1 ton of shabu with a street value of P6.8 billion.
Aquino said the new calculations showed the total weight of the shabu that was smuggled was 1.6 tons. With a street price of P6,800 per gram, the PDEA said the total amount would be P11 billion.
Aquino said the PDEA arrived at the new weight by substracting from the declared weight of the shipment shown in the bill of lading the total weight of the four lifters, the weight of shipping containers that carried the lifters, plus the electric cables, power supply, and other accessories that originally accompanied the lifters.
‘Let’s do some arithmetic’
“I believe that since these would be the shipment that would be slipped through [by the drug syndicate], they really packed it full,” he said.
Lapeña, however, disputed Aquino’s new estimates.
He said three of the four lifters found in Cavite were similar in size to the two lifters abandoned at MICT and the fourth was smaller, Lapeña said.
“Let’s do some arithmetic,” Lapeña said. “You divide it by 355 kilograms by two, multiply it by three, plus the fourth small lifter. You will come up not even one ton, but only 600 kilos plus.” —WITH REPORTS FROM CATHERINE GONZALES AND TINA G. SANTOS
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