Glimmer of accountability

/ 05:08 AM January 30, 2019

Could we finally be seeing a glimmer of accountability against former Customs commissioner Isidro Lapeña in the P11-billion drug smuggling case via magnetic lifters that happened under his watch?

After half a year of investigation, the National Bureau of Investigation last week filed criminal and administrative
charges against Lapeña and 50 others for failing to stop the entry of the massive drug haul into the country.


Aside from charges of false testimony and perjury, Lapeña is facing charges of graft, dereliction of duty and grave misconduct for his alleged inaction against the importers of the “shabu” found hidden inside magnetic lifters that arrived in two shipments at the Manila International Container Terminal (MICT) in July last year.

One shipment of 500 kilograms of shabu worth P4.3 billion was found abandoned at the MICT on Aug. 7. But a second shipment, believed to be 1 ton of shabu inside four magnetic lifters, slipped past Customs; the empty lifters were found by Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency agents in a warehouse in Cavite province on Aug. 8.


Lapeña, the NBI said, showed “deliberate intent to favor” the importers of shabu because he did not file charges against them although he had already identified them. “Up to this time, the Bureau of Customs (BOC) did not initiate a case against the consignees and importers of the magnetic lifters,” the NBI added.

Lapeña had initially insisted that no shabu was recovered from the four magnetic lifters found in Cavite despite the actions of sniffer dogs indicating otherwise. He later conceded during a House hearing that the lifters could have contained shabu.

Why did it take so long for charges to be filed against Lapeña? Could it be because he had a strong backer in no less than the President himself, who had telegraphed more than once that Lapeña—his police chief from 1996 to 1998 and from 2002 to 2004 during his term as Davao City mayor—should be spared from scrutiny?

Weeks after the scandal broke out, President Duterte blithely dismissed the controversy involving the biggest drug hoard so far under his administration as “mere speculation.”

“There was nothing there,” he said in August last year. “They presumed it was filled with shabu and made assumption on the prices. You do not go into speculative content. You must be very sure that you have the goods.”

In October, as more evidence surfaced that the magnetic lifters did contain drugs, Mr. Duterte defended the Customs chief anew, saying that Lapeña had been the unwitting victim of wily Customs insiders, or, as he put it, “Nalusutan lang.”

Of course, any other official deemed to be that irresponsible or inattentive in his job would have been axed pronto under Mr. Duterte’s supposed tough stance against corrupt and incompetent members of his administration.


But as the heat grew more intense over the issue, the President simply plucked Lapeña out of Customs and made him director general of the Technical Education and Skills Development Authority, with Cabinet rank—a promotion at that.

Such signals would have discouraged government agencies from pursuing action against a clear favorite of the President, but to its credit, the NBI appears to be unfazed in gunning after Lapeña and others it deems responsible for the smuggling incident.

The Senate blue ribbon committee headed by Sen. Richard Gordon had also investigated the case and recommended the filing of charges against several men and consignees of the magnetic lifters — but not Lapeña.

Gordon said he did not think the former BOC chief could be involved in such shenanigans, and just like that, Lapeña was again pronounced blameless, while various underlings got the rap.

In November 2018, the NBI also filed a graft complaint against Lapeña over 105 containers of ceramic tiles from China that vanished from Customs earlier in the year.

The NBI’s complaint said the former Customs chief should be administratively charged with gross neglect of duty and grave misconduct because, despite his own alert order for a full inspection of the containers, Lapeña did not stop the release of the goods.

The President’s protective hand must be dissuaded from extending any cover to Lapeña, whether through public pronouncements that tend to exonerate him on mere presidential say-so, or any move that would interfere with his obligation to explain himself in court, now that proper charges have been filed.

The credibility of the President’s antidrug efforts ultimately rests on how he treats not his perceived adversaries, but his compromised friends.

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TAGS: Bureau of Customs, drug smuggling, Inquirer editorial, Isidro Lapeña, NBI, public accountability, Rodrigo Duterte, war on drugs
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