This month, former Customs chief Nicanor Faeldon will mark his fifth month in detention. He had been held by the Senate beginning Sept. 11, 2017, on grounds of contempt for supposedly misbehaving and showing disrespect toward certain senators during an inquiry into the smuggling of P6.4 billion worth of shabu from China that occurred during his tenure at the Bureau of Customs.
Surely, any sensible observer would think, five months are enough time to thresh out whatever disagreements, hurt feelings and wounded pride are at the heart of this display of punitive action by the Senate. There are far bigger and more urgent issues at play, after all, such as the true provenance, ownership and beneficiaries of the shabu hoard—a tantalizingly unresolved controversy that has metastasized into one of the most potent scandals hounding the Duterte administration. But since Faeldon and the senators led by Senate blue ribbon committee chair Richard Gordon remain at loggerheads, with an unseemly exchange at their last meeting, the fate of the former Marine captain and mutineer has seemingly gotten worse: His incarceration was moved last week from the Senate premises to the Pasay City Jail, where he now shares the air with 108 other inmates.
Faeldon’s supposed crime? Refusing to further testify at the blue ribbon hearings on the foiled shabu smuggling bid as well as on the can of worms opened by the testimony of Customs fixer and whistle-blower Mark Taguba on corrupt practices in the BOC. Summoned to the Senate to explain his agency’s shortcomings, Faeldon attended only three hearings; he refused further participation after butting heads chiefly with Gordon and Sen. Panfilo Lacson and crying bias in their treatment of him. Ordered detained at the office of the Senate Sergeant-at-Arms for his intransigence, Faeldon turned himself in wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with the words “Truth is Justice.”
But what is the truth in this case? The public is so far unable to know, because the standoff between Faeldon and Gordon et al. has lamentably become the main drama, eclipsing the far more consequential matter of the shabu shipment itself. To date, minor players linked to the scandal, such as Taguba and sundry other shippers, facilitators, warehouse lessees—even the caretaker of the Valenzuela warehouse where the shipment ended up—have been charged in court, and the poor caretaker is the only suspect so far arrested in connection with the case. Faeldon himself, along with 11 others, is the subject of a criminal complaint filed by the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency over the BOC’s failure to flag the shipment.
Taguba’s explosive testimony, however, supported by phone records, brought up a much bigger issue: the possible involvement of no less than President Duterte’s son, former Davao vice mayor Paolo Duterte, and son-in-law, lawyer Mans Carpio, and other members of a so-called Davao Group of fixers and smugglers. A mysterious “Tita Nanie” who allegedly brokered Taguba’s links with the Davao Group was also mentioned. But, after nine hearings, Gordon wrapped up his committee’s inquiry into the smuggling case with the sweeping conclusion that no links existed between the Davao Group and the shabu hoard. Instead, he said, the committee would focus on the “tara” system of bribery and patronage at Customs.
Faeldon has asked the Supreme Court to intervene and order the Senate to release him, pointing out that in lieu of live testimony, he had in fact offered to answer Gordon’s questions in writing in the form of a notarized affidavit. But apparently that’s not good enough, as Gordon’s staff allegedly also told Faeldon to “write an apology” and “beg” the senator for his release. This is “persecution in aid of media mileage and grandstanding,” claimed Faeldon.
At this late stage, at least on the matter of his incarceration and not on his own culpability in the case, few would disagree with him.