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A new man, a new team at Customs

There is a new man at Customs and he has vowed to end corruption and increase revenue collections at the bureau. Commissioner Isidro Lapeña, formerly chief of the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency (PDEA), took over from Commissioner Nicanor Faeldon last Wednesday, saying he will implement a “one-strike” policy at Customs as he did at PDEA “to boost internal cleansing.”

Commissioner Faeldon told the Senate Blue Ribbon Committee at its inquiry early this month that when he took over at Customs, he immediately learned of the “tara” system but the people he was working with were “the people I suspected to do all his tara, so how can I designate them to conduct the investigation?”

Thus the system continued and because of it, 600 kilos of shabu worth R6.4 billion managed to slip through Customs last May and were found later in two warehouses raided in Valenzuela City. The question has been asked: How many more kilos of shabu may have passed through Customs but were never caught? How many more kilos thus entered the drug market all over the country?

It was the drugs angle which heightened public condemnation of the corruption in the form of the “tara” system at Customs. But long before the ongoing campaign against drugs, the Bureau of Customs already had a dubious reputation.

The “tara” collection, it appears, is aside from the legal customs charges. It was paid by importers to speed up the movement of their cargo through the ports. Delays are costly; additional charges are imposed by shipping and warehouse companies. Importers and their brokers thus paid “tara” to avoid expensive delays.

The new team at Customs led by Commissioner Lapeña must seek ways to speed up the movement of cargo through the piers, perhaps by studying how even bigger ports in the United States and other countries operate efficiently with even bigger volumes of shipments. They are able to do this with a system of inspection and auditing of cargo in the port of embarkation. With greater efficiency in handling arriving cargo, importers would not see a need to pay extra to speed their way through Customs and our ports.

There was supposed to be such a customs procedure for all containerized cargo destined for Philippine ports but its implementation was delayed in 2014 due to operational issues at the Port of Manila. The new Customs team of Commissioner Lapeña might want to look into this as part of its plan to stop the corruption in the bureau.

It is a most difficult task. Many commissioners before him have failed. But with the support of President Duterte and with the eyes of the entire country watching his every move, he may succeed in speeding up operations at the piers, in totally blocking the movement of drugs through customs, and in improving the image of the bureau, now seen – fairly or unfairly – as one of the most corrupt agencies of the government.