Who’s afraid of Lourdes Mangaoang?
The issue on the magnetic lifters that allegedly carried P11 billion worth of “shabu” has been dragging on for months. The enormous hunks of metal equipment entered the country last July; the first to alert us about the fact were police dogs trained by the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency to sniff out the slightest hint of illegal substances in the air.
At once and unexpectedly, the first response from the Palace was cold denial. “There was nothing there,” declared President Duterte, contradicting the police dogs which have olfactory senses 40 times greater than humans’ noses. What we’ve seen since then has been a vicious exchange of accusations and counteraccusations from different line agencies, with each side pushing their own version to explain an increasingly perplexing turn of events.
Then came the fiery Lourdes Mangaoang. Dressed in light auburn hair and red lipstick, she burst into the spotlight armed with a no-nonsense personality and heaps of formidable evidence to back up her claims against corruption in the bureau. No one seemed ready for her, but many, including me, eagerly awaited what she had to say.
While Customs Commissioner Isidro Lapeña grimaced in denial, Mangaoang commanded the public’s attention as she voluntarily testified in Congress and went on a series of media interviews. Wherever she went, the former X-ray division chief of the Bureau of Customs explained in plain and convincing terms how the lifters were clandestinely used by drug syndicates to move the illegal shipments past the fortifications set by Customs, and onto its intended destination: our streets. More importantly, she revealed that the contraband could have been intercepted at the right time had the concerned personnel only followed protocol.
The retaliation. Suddenly, the shards came together to form a more coherent story. Lapeña, who resisted the claims about the lifters for months, was eventually forced to recant his position. The story continues to evolve as investigators rehash the finer points of the case and trace the proper accountabilities. Meanwhile, Mangaoang is fighting off the new enemies she has made by becoming a whistleblower.
Days before she testified at the Senate blue ribbon committee, Mangaoang was sacked as deputy collector at Naia for allegedly having “underperformed,” even when she had barely spent a month in the post. A lifestyle check was also ordered by Lapeña to scrutinize her wealth as a public official. At the lower chamber, she was almost cited for contempt by Rep. Romeo Acop, who is said to be a good friend of Lapeña.
The bid to discredit her continues. She now also has to contend with recently surfaced rumors about purported romantic links to a town mayor earlier branded as a “narcopolitician.”
Through all of these, Lourdes Mangaoang has shown not a tinge of despondency or fear. She’s gone up against two powerful bosses: one in her home bureau and the other one in Malacañang, at a time when people just drop dead for even the slightest infractions against the current dispensation.
Mr. Duterte’s response to this huge embarrassment has been predictable. He decided once again to fire the Customs chief, but only to transfer him to another government post. In this case, it even looks like a promotion, as Lapeña is set to join the Cabinet as the next Tesda chief.
As for Mangaoang, her struggles may have just begun. We have yet to know more about her, but, in the spirit of fairness, we should ask: How many of us are willing to go that far for the truth?
The Bureau of Customs has long been one of the most corrupt agencies in the country. What will come out of Mangaoang’s experience as a whistleblower could either serve as a north star for other honest government workers and truth-tellers, or as a cautionary tale. At the very least, we owe her thanks and our continued vigilance.
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Kevin Mandrilla is a graduate student at the University of the Philippines Diliman. He works as a communications professional for the tech industry and writes occasional pieces about politics and culture in his free time.
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