Commissioner Ruffy Biazon is a babe in the woods in the Bureau of Customs (BOC). He doesn’t know what is going on around him. He is lost. Biazon is a good and honest man, but you can’t put a former congressman in the BOC and expect him to transform all the sinners in the bureau into saints. There are so many complex rules and regulations in the Tariff and Customs Code that a customs examiner is given too much leeway in interpreting them. And this is where corruption and technical smuggling come in.
The examiner can interpret the rules any way he wants, depending on whether he wants to favor the importer or to harass him so he would “see the light” and cough up bribe money. Even Customs police can be made to close their eyes when contraband is being trucked out of the customs zone.
The best Customs commissioners were Customs oldtimers because they knew the ropes, they knew all the loopholes, and they knew who the crooks were in the bureau. Of course even these commissioners were eventually corrupted, but at least they made the BOC meet its collection targets.
I am not saying that Biazon should be fired and replaced with an oldtimer. What I am driving at is that Customs insiders were among the best Customs commissioners who told their subordinates that it is all right to provide for themselves but to leave enough for the government. Corruption was not eliminated but was at least reduced, and the BOC met its collection targets.
The way to totally eliminate corruption in the BOC is, first, to simplify the Customs Code so that it would leave no discretion to the examiners. Second, train a new cadre of idealistic young men and women to replace the present crop of BOC officials and employees. The present crop of personnel is already so deep in corruption and profiting so much from it that it would be difficult to reform them. They will always succumb to temptation. Even clerks in the BOC are on the take, and even janitors double as messengers for fixers. Corruption in the BOC is like an incurable gangrenous wound rotting a diabetic’s foot away. The only way to save the patient’s life is to amputate his foot or leg. It is the same way with the BOC. In the words of US Sen. Paul Laxalt telling President Ferdinand Marcos when the angry people had massed at Malacañang’s gates: “Cut and cut cleanly.”
Does Biazon see it this way? I think not. His solution is to institute reforms, but his reforms still leave too many loopholes; examiners still can interpret the Customs Code any which way they want. The correct solution is to make the rules and regulations simple and clear so that they will not allow the examiners any discretion for interpretation.
To make the BOC personnel tread the straight and narrow path, sincerity and honesty are not enough. It also requires knowhow, something that Biazon does not have yet.
For example, corruption is staring him in the face, but he does not see it. Has he ever wondered why there are so many pseudojournalists covering the Customs bureau? Imagine, there are more than 300 “journalists” accredited with the BOC. That’s more than the reporters covering Malacañang, the Senate, the House of Representatives and the Supreme Court combined. Yet, we hardly see any news reports about the BOC, except when smuggling is discovered, and they are written not by the customs reporters but by reporters in other beats. The oil smuggling exposé was written by business reporters. If San Miguel CEO Ramon Ang had not exposed it, Biazon and the public would still be blissfully unaware of it.
So what are all those 300 self-styled reporters doing at the Customs bureau? Acting as fixers for importers and smugglers. Biazon was warned about them when he was appointed to the BOC. But do you know what he did? Instead of cracking down on the “hao shiaos” infesting the bureau, he ran to them and blabbed about the warning, most likely to ingratiate himself to them.
So what happened? That fixers and smugglers were emboldened. Smuggling not only continued but worsened. It is not only oil that is being smuggled here but also rice, luxury vehicles, imported vegetables, even frozen meat and, very soon, cigarettes and liquor.
Biazon, realizing only now—after the oil smuggling was exposed—that the warning about the hao shiaos in the customs zone acting as fixers is after all true, has trimmed down the number of “journalists” in the customs zone from more than 300 to 96. But that is still too many. There are not that many legitimate media organizations—print, television and radio—that should be covering customs.
Many of them come from tabloids, fly-by-night sheets with only a thousand copies or two, circulated only in the BOC. Do you know that there are more tabloids in the customs zone than in Manila or Quezon City? Why so many?
Because they are being used for extortion and fixing. Customs officials and employees are hit on their pages to force them to give and cooperate; cooperative ones are praised. There are also the radio commentators, block-time buyers all, who criticize Customs personnel to force them to cough up and cooperate. These hao shiaos, radio commentators and tabloid columnists and reporters are not paid by the radio stations and the tabloids. So how do they make a living? By extorting and by acting as fixers in the bureau.
Apparently, they are making a good living there because when editors reassign reporters covering the customs beat at the South Harbor and the Ninoy Aquino International Airport, they would rather resign than leave their beat. There are customs reporters who used to belong to long-defunct newspapers, but they are still there at the customs zone every day. Why? It is not hard to guess why.