Escudero to BOC: File charges vs. rice smugglers, hoarders

Senator Francis Escudero challenged the Bureau of Customs to immediately file charges against traders susceptibly involved in smuggling and hoarding rice.

Escudero said such illegal activities have caused an artificial shortage of food staples and rice price spikes in recent months.

The senator then slammed the BOC for its failure to disclose to the public the "names of traders and operators whose warehouses were raided by government authorities for tons of suspected smuggled rice."

"Ang dami nang raids na ginawa nitong mga nakaraang linggo, bakit hanggang ngayon, wala pang kasong isinasampa sa mga taong sangkot? (You have done so many raid activities this past weeks, why is it until now you haven't filed cases to anyone involved?)," he said.

Escudero stressed the need to file charges and 'bring these economic saboteurs to court" so it could "serve as a warning" that the Marcos administration is indeed serious in its campaign against smugglers and hoarders.

He said the authorities should not stop by just conducting a series of raids, instead, the efforts should showcase strong results.

The Republic Act 10845 or the Anti-Agricultural Smuggling Act of 2016 considers large-scale smuggling of agricultural products as economic sabotage, with "at least P1 million worth of sugar, corn, pork, poultry, garlic, onion, carrots, fish, and cruciferous vegetables, in their raw state, or which have undergone the simple processes of preparation and preservation for the market, or a minimum of P10 million worth of rice, as valued by Bureau of Customs."

"Why haven't I heard anyone sued for economic sabotage or something? Who owns these warehouses? Who are the people involved?" Escudero asked, citing that the BoC-Port of Zamboanga seized some 42,180 sacks of rice worth P42 million in Barangay San Jose Gusu on 15 September.

The local bureau inspected the warehouse on 19 May after receiving information that smuggled rice was being stored in the area.

Two weeks prior, the BOC inspected three warehouses in Bulacan and found these stocked with suspected smuggled imported rice worth P505 million. It temporarily sealed and guarded these warehouses located inside the Intercity Industrial Complex in Balagtas, Bulacan.

Aside from filing charges, Escudero said the government should also update the public on the development of these cases "in the spirit of transparency."

"Ito ang mga dapat nilang masagot ngayon (this what they should answer now): who oversees the disposition and how will it be disposed? Ano ang gagawin nila sa mga bigas na nakumpiska? (What will happen to confiscated rice?)," Escudero said.

In a news forum last Saturday, BOC Port of Zamboanga chief, Benito Lontok, said the agency is planning to donate the smuggled rice for the implementation of the Department of Agriculture's Kadiwa Program and the Department of Social Welfare and Development's assistance programs.

However, Lontok said the plan is still "subject to approval" of BoC Commissioner Bienvenido Rubio and Finance Secretary Benjamin Diokno.

'DA should step up'

Meanwhile, Senator Alan Peter Cayetano urged DA to take more proactive measures to address the price hike in rice.

Cayetano lamented the prices of rice remain high despite the government's implementation of a price cap on the product.

President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. earlier blamed smugglers and hoarders for causing the increasing prices of rice in the country.

Hence, issuing the executive Order No. 39 on 31 August, mandated price ceilings for regular-milled rice at P41 per kilogram and well-milled rice at P45 per kilogram.

The EO 39 will be implemented nationwide beginning 5 September.

Marcos vowed the government would continue going after the rice smugglers and hoarders, including the imposition of penalties for those found guilty of violating the mandated price cap for rice.

Cayetano lauded Marcos for this effort and for being a "sincere Agriculture Secretary" with a primary intent on the country's food situation.

However, he stressed that other DA officials should not rely on the Chief Executive for solutions.

"The DA to seek long-term solutions to stabilize food prices, emphasizing that temporary measures may not address the root causes of the problem," he said.

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