There’s the Rub

Crater in the ‘daang matuwid’

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Ruffy Biazon says oil smuggling is nothing new: “It did not just crop up in the past 18 months during my tenure as (Customs) commissioner or during the Aquino administration from mid-2010 to the present. It is a problem that hounds every Customs administration, not just in the Philippines but around the world. The only difference is the magnitude of the problem and the dynamics of the system prevailing in each country.”

This reminds me of how Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo justified her widely perceived illegitimate rule. It was her misfortune, she said, to have inherited the politics of patronage and expedience. But she was doing everything in her power to push it back.

The question was how. By mounting an illegitimate rule?

Same question with the Bureau of Customs (BOC). Of course, Biazon inherited the problem. How has he pushed it back?

I don’t know that smuggling has gotten worse during his term, or indeed under the term of his boss. I do know it hasn’t gotten less rampant. Before Ramon Ang came out with his complaint that one out of every three barrels of oil is smuggled, costing government P30 billion in lost revenue per year, smuggling was widely known to be rampant. Though of course oil smuggling by itself is one humongous cause for alarm. Ang’s complaint may cut across the last few years of Arroyo’s rule, but it also carries well into Aquino’s time. That means it hasn’t stopped. That may even mean it’s gotten worse. True enough, after three years of Aquino’s administration, you can’t just blame the previous regime for it.

Teddy Casiño will not find unsympathetic ears when he says: “Oil smuggling is too widespread and systemic to escape the attention and appropriate action from Biazon. The President should fire him.”

The only question is whether that alone would do the trick.

In fact, it’s not just oil smuggling that’s the problem, it’s smuggling in general. Oil is being smuggled, rice is being smuggled, food is being smuggled, cars are being smuggled, machinery is being smuggled, pretty much anything of value is being smuggled. And the smuggling is done in broad daylight, in plain view of the authorities. That cannot happen without the collusion of the authorities, specifically the BOC. It’s not uncommon for the drivers or the owners of vans and trucks that have been pulled over by the intelligence agents to materialize posthaste at the scene of the raid to complain to the raiders, “Pero bayad na ’yan.”

The problem goes all the way up. How far up we do not know, but which is a good question to answer. One is tempted to say, preferably by way of a Senate investigation except that Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile himself is accused of wholesale smuggling of second-hand cars in his favorite enclave in Cagayan. Whatever happened to that? The Bureau of Customs was supposed to investigate and do something about it.

Biazon is right, however his insight hasn’t helped him to correct anything: The problem is endemic, the problem is systemic. But he is wrong to imagine the world shares the same problem. The only difference, he says, is the magnitude of the smuggling and the dynamics of it in each country. Well, that is one hell of a difference. In fact, that makes for all the difference in the world.

The problem is not unlike jueteng. It’s not a PCSO problem, it’s a police problem. The reason it’s the hardest thing to extirpate is that it’s the cash cow of the generals, police and military. Jueteng supplies them with millions of pesos a month each, which is more than they’ll ever get legally in 10 lifetimes if they did overtime every week and volunteered for all the dangerous assignments that carried premium. That kind of money gets factored in easily by those receiving it: It won’t be easy parting with it. They’ll do everything in their power to keep it.

That too is what makes smuggling the hardest thing to extirpate. It’s not just the people in Customs that benefit from the distribution of the spoils—though, as somebody told me some time ago, looking for an honest official there is like looking for 10 just men in Sodom and Gomorrah—it’s the bureaucracy too. The spoils are huge and make the one in jueteng look like penny ante. Take it from Ang’s estimate of what’s lost in revenue in oil smuggling alone. The magnitude and dynamics are so systematized, if you belong to the chain that goes up, the spoils reach you routinely, like payday.

It’s said that before tankers get past Batangas, a good deal of their oil is already siphoned off. That offers a pretty good image of the distribution of spoils, it’s a siphoning process too.

Not quite incidentally, it’s a convenient way to fund electoral campaigns.

Will firing Biazon alone do the trick? Well, it can’t hurt, if only to show political will. Aquino himself has shown the strengths—and limits—of leading by example. You can go a long way with it, even if that’s not all it takes. Customs does have its share of honest people. Danny Lim is one of them, the head of Customs intelligence who has been reduced to the unenviable position of not knowing whether the enemy is outside or inside. Indeed, who has been reduced to the unenviable situation of having his name dragged into the gutter time and again: You don’t want to take bribes, others will take them in your name and leave you high and dry.

What is clear is that government needs to do something about it, and soon. The fortunes of Team PNoy are at stake in it: Trust the other side to harp on the possibility, or likelihood, of that team running on borrowed, or purloined, funds. The suggestion is already being made even as we speak. It is one very big chink in the armor. It is one very big crack in the dam.

It is one very big crater in the daang matuwid.

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