An exasperated President Rodrigo Duterte issued a marching order to new Customs Commissioner Rey Leonardo “Jagger” Guerrero to “get rid” of corruption at the Bureau of Customs (BoC) a day after Mr. Duterte ordered a top-to-bottom overhaul of the agency.
“Get rid of corruption there. Do something about it,” presidential spokesman Salvador Panelo quoted Mr. Duterte as telling Guerrero who was pulled from his post as Maritime Industry Authority (MARINA) head.
Guerrero, a former chief of staff of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP), responded with a vow to institute reforms in the agency, saying he shared Mr. Duterte’s order to do his job and bring back the integrity of the BoC by starting with the firing of corrupt officials and employees.
“They have no place in government service. That’s all I can say. There’s no room for corrupt people in government service,” Guerrero told reporters moments after the President made the announcement at the Philippine Coast Guard’s 117th anniversary celebration on Thursday night.
“It’s a new field like when I first joined MARINA. I’m not from the (maritime) industry and similarly with Customs. But it’s a challenge and another thing I have to overcome,” he added.
The Chief Executive likewise ordered key Customs personnel “down to the last man” to be put on floating status to give Guerrero a free hand to employ his own men to restructure and reorganize the BoC.
“That’s the President’s instruction and I am here to implement whatever reforms are needed in the bureau. It’s really important that people inside Customs are trusted by the leader for him to be able to effectively implement those reforms,” Guerrero said, adding although he has a tinge of apprehension, he feels “excited” to start his new mission.
Mr. Duterte transferred the besieged former BoC head, Isidro Lapeña, to the Technical Education and Skills Development Authority (TESDA) as its new head during a speech marking the 117th anniversary of the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) last Thursday.
Asked if he thinks there is still hope in transforming the BoC, Guerrero’s reply was a snappy and firm “of course.”
Mr. Duterte’s purging of the BoC came at a time when the agency is in the middle of a controversy after four empty magnetic lifters suspected to have contained crystal meth — also known as shabu — were found in a Cavite warehouse in August.
Controversy over lost drugs
Prior to that, the BoC and the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency (PDEA) had just intercepted 500 kilos of the banned substance stashed in two other magnetic filters at the Manila International Container Port (MICP).
Lapena initially refuted PDEA chief Aaron Aquino’s claims of the magnetic filters found in Cavite contained billions of pesos’ worth of shabu resulting in both officials’ verbal tussle over the media.
His transfer from the BoC to TESDA amid a multibillion-peso drug smuggling controversy, however, is not a punishment but a “promotion,” according to Malacañang.
Panelo said Duterte has been toying with the idea of naming Lapeña to replace the just-resigned Guiling Mamondiong who already filed his candidacy for Lanao del Sur governor in next year’s mid-term polls.
“No. The President promoted Lapeña to a Cabinet position. He already had Lapeña in his mind,” Panelo said in a text message.
“With respect to Commissioner Lapeña, his transfer to TESDA has long been planned. But the President wanted to spare him from intrigue that’s why the President made an earlier announcement,” he added.
“Customs is mired in corruption. Whoever you place there will have a hard time to succeed.
Subordinates will undermine you, that’s what is happening there,” Panelo added.
On 15 October, Mr. Duterte said he offered before high-ranking military and police officials to resign because he can no longer deal with corruption, apparently referring to the BoC.
“It was a Cabinet meeting then after that a command conference, I told them ‘I can no longer take it.’ I can’t run after it. Every desk in this government, with a few exceptions, has a drawer for transactions,” he added.
Apart from reassigning Lapeña, the President also ordered key BoC personnel — deputy commissioners, department heads and section chiefs — to be placed on floating status to give Guerrero the freedom to reorganize the bureau and institute the needed reforms to regain its integrity and the public’s trust.
Senators supported the President’s order to “overhaul” the BoC amid the billions of pesos’ worth of shabu shipment now being probed by the Senate and the House of Representatives.
Senate President Vicente Sotto III said the President’s move to promote Lapeña will spare the respected former police general from the rotten system of Customs.
“At least, General Lapeña will no longer be in the line of fire. What BoC needs is a complete overhaul,” Sotto said.
Lapeña was not the first BoC chief to be relieved due to the smuggling of illegal drugs. His predecessor, former Marine Capt. Nicanor Faeldon, suffered a similar fate despite seizing P6.4 billion worth of shabu from a warehouse in Valenzuela City.
Sen. Panfilo Lacson also expressed disappointment over Lapena’s transfer but cited the latest development only showed the President’s resolve to address the illegal drugs menace.
Doing a good job
“While I regret Commissioner Lapeña’s relief as BoC Commissioner since he was doing a good job in consistently exceeding his target collections, save for the shabu shipment that got away due to apparent collusion with some of his people at the lower echelon of the bureau, I can only conclude that PRRD (Mr. Duterte’s initials) has once again shown his zero tolerance in his battle against illegal drugs.
“I hope retired General Guerrero can fill in the big boots left by Lapeña and will not suffer the same fate as he did,” Lacson, a former chief of the Philippine National Police (PNP) said.
House committee on dangerous drugs chairman Robert Ace Barbers expressed hope “that the BoC and the PDEA can provide closure to the smuggled shabu issue.
“It is possible that there’s shabu in the magnetic lifters that’s why we will continue the hearing and we will find answers to the questions,” Barbers vowed.
Former President and now Speaker Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo believed Duterte has appointed “good soldiers.”
“They are literally good soldiers, that’s why,” Arroyo answered when asked if she agreed with Duterte’s appointment of military officers.
She also affirmed that experience is an advantage for officials under the shuffle ordered by Mr. Duterte.
PNP, AFP laud posting
Both the PNP and the AFP expressed delight in the new role of Guerrero in government.
The AFP described the former chief of staff as a serious and strict person with a very good heart.
“I am confident that he will do good. He is an honest, intelligent and very competent man,” AFP chief of staff Gen. Carlito Galvez Jr. said.
He was also congratulated by PNP that believes BoC will be in good hands.
“I’m sure his leadership and management skills coupled with his experience in security sector reform will help, in no small measure, his monumental task in reforming the Bureau,” said Chief Supt. Benigno Durana, PNP spokesman.
Guerrero was a graduate of Philippine Military Academy class of 1984 and was the chief of staff of AFP from October 2017 up to April 2018. He was succedded by Galvez who is the current AFP chief of staff.
After his retirement, he served as administrator of Maritime Industry Authority from April 2018 until he was recently appointed as the new BoC Commissioner succeeding Isidro Lapeña.
With Mario J. Mallari, Hananeel Bordey, Kathleen Mae Bulquerin