Saturday, February 9, 2008

Smuggling remains a big problem in the Philippines

Gone are the days when smuggling activities were at their worst in the Philippines. At least, the creation of the Economic Intelligence and Investigation Bureau (EIIB), a forerunner of the Anti-smuggling Action Center (ASAC) during the time of President Magsaysay, has stemmed the tide of smuggling activities during that time. Revival of this kind of law enforcement organization is needed in the wake of reports that the national government has been defrauded of tremendous amount of taxes, in cahoots with some Bureau of Customs officials.

Without a counter check of the goods that are coming out of the entry ports, the publics are guessing as to whether the same goods are properly taxed or not, once they are shipped out and delivered to their consignees. What is happening right now is that only the customs bureau is tasked of both responsibilities. In the past, EIIB operatives are always on stake out for containers coming of the south harbor, after reliable tips are given to them. And in some instances, the tips turned out to be true, with the containers ending up to Camp Aguinaldo where the bureau's office used to be located. As a reporter covering the defense beats at that time, I could see many confiscated container vans lined up inside its premises.

However, it wasn't long before the Department of Finance had to act on the overlapping of functions that the two bureaus are making. Perhaps, there was a lobby group that made true its promise to quash the existence of the EIIB so that the customs bureau could make what it felt at that time was theirs to keep. Pity to those who were out of jobs after the EIIB was debunked. But not without a fight. I was covering the Department of Finance in the same complex where the Central Bank is located, when former EIIB employees had camped out in the street fronting the DOF building to protest the EIIB's dissolution to no avail. Sources said some of them were absorbed by the DOF, while others had opted to take advantage of the government's early retirement program which some of them availed of.

With only the customs bureau at the helm, how sure are the taxpayers that its personnel are doing their responsibilities honestly and effectively. We don't single out the EIIB or any anti-smuggling organization as exception to the rule, but without an independent law enforcement body to check on the departure of container vans from the entry ports is tantamount to daydreaming on the collection targets that the government is hoping to achieve. After all, nobody is sure if the customs bureau is collecting the right amount of tariffs that are supposed to go to the government coffer. Ears of close observers are ringing that some personnel, like ordinary customs police and examiners, have mansions with swimming pools in posh subdivisions in some places in Metro Manila and the suburbs. But these properties are under the name of dummies.

The same is true with some examiners of the country's premier tax collecting agency--the Bureau of Internal Revenue (BIR). Can they escape public's scrutiny when their accumulation of unexplained wealth was revealed in a random investigation made by a task force created under the Office of the President.

Some government examiners are believed to have established connections with Filipino-Chinese businessmen who granted them of some favors in exchange for tax protection. Imagine, these examiners have made good business out their influence, without even shelling out capital for the goods they sold on consignment basis. The only guarantee is the trust and loyalty that these government officials have developed with their patrons over the years.

Now, some of them have made good money and eventually retired from government service to shun public attention, sources said. Besides, records at the Philippine Anti-Graft Commission can attest to this claim. The only problem is that the anti-graft body has not been given the quasi-judicial personality to prosecute those who it found have amassed ill-gotten wealth through patronage system.

While the Office of the Ombudsman is bedecked with all sorts of big ticket criminal cases that are still waiting to be resolved. It can't be established yet if the said office lacks prosecutors to prosecute these cases on account that some public officials with pending criminal cases were able to retire without serving their prison sentences. Did money change hands to allow them to retire?

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