Friday, May 27, 2011

Crime as Government in the Philippines

MANILA - When Hollywood screenwriter Skip Woods hired the services of a private investigation firm to locate his prized customized motorbike stolen in Texas last year, little did he expect that it would be traced halfway around the world in the Philippine southern island of Mindanao. Apart from Woods' US$80,000 Harley Davidson bike, 24 other smuggled cars and motorcycles were seized during a raid by Philippine National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) agents aided by a tip-off from the United States Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). The FBI later confirmed that eight vehicles seized in the raid were stolen from the US based on their serial numbers.

The recovery of the stolen US vehicles in the Philippines has put a spotlight on the country's rampant smuggling and ports corruption. Contraband, including smuggled oil and agricultural products, flow easily across the archipelago's loosely controlled maritime borders. The recent raid indicates that local smugglers are moving up the value-added chain and apparently have deep connections with criminal syndicates in the US and possibly other countries.

The incident has raised questions about President Benigno Aquino's anti-corruption pledge, one of the key planks of the reform campaign he rode to an overwhelming electoral win last year. Some have interpreted the high-profile bust as indication that his government is serious about uprooting endemic corruption, including at the notoriously graft-ridden Bureau of Customs (BoC). Others believe Philippine authorities only acted under pressure from the US and will likely wilt in the prosecution phase once it becomes clear the extent of high-level official complicity in the criminal racket. Either way, the lack of perceived progress was reflected in a recent Social Weather Station survey that showed public disappointment in Aquino's efforts in eradicating graft and corruption, with perception ratings slipping by eight percentage points from last November to this March.

Lynard Allan Bigcas, a Mindanao-based importer, a US immigrant and the main suspect in the luxury vehicle smuggling racket, allegedly received the seized shipment from Hispanic car thieves in Houston, Texas, according to officials. NBI authorities have also accused Bigcas of involvement in illegal gun-running with possible links to international terrorist groups after several high-powered firearms and ammunition were recovered during the May 3 raid. Bigcas has maintained his innocence of the charges.

Philippine agents also seized an alleged list of his clients which apparently includes several influential political clans in Mindanao. The black book was made public during a congressional hearing on the controversy on Monday. Ilocos Norte congressman Rodolfo Farinas, who heads the government investigation, claimed there were 90 names in Bigcas' book, including governors, mayors and political clan members, with monetary amounts for apparent placed orders listed next to their names. Those mentioned have denied any connection to Bigcas. Lanao del Norte governor Mohammad Khalid Dimaporo claimed at the hearing that it was the first time he had heard Bigcas' name, although long-time residents of Lanao said that the Dimaporo family is close to Bigcas, who is reportedly a rider and supplier of parts to the Sultan Naga Dimaporo racing team.

Lawyer Noa Dimaporo, a deputy customs collector at a container port in Mindanao, was identified during the congressional hearing of asking Bigcas for the price of certain smuggled firearms, giving some credence to NBI director Magtanggol Gatdula's allegation that Bigcas had high-level contacts at the BoC. Bigcas said during the congressional hearing that he imported the luxury vehicles by disassembling and shipping them in so-called "balikbayan" boxes, or door-to-door shipments, by overseas Filipino workers that are not subject to tariffs. He pleaded ignorance that the practice was illegal under Philippine law. NBI investigators deemed his testimony as improbable and argued that the claim was likely made to avoid exposing official complicity at the BoC.

Customs commissioner Angelito Alvarez said they were looking into the possibility that the smuggled items were actually transported by sea and not by cargo plane, which would have been checked by BoC officials. This would raise doubts about Bigcas' claim they were delivered by "balikbayan" boxes. Alvarez said the BoC is investigating reports that the shipment passed through either Japan or South Korea, where the import papers were allegedly changed. He also said that Bigcas was probably part of a smuggling ring his office raided in Davao a month ago. At the same time, there are questions about possible high-level BoC involvement in the transnational smuggling racket. When asked by reporters whether he felt miffed that the BoC was not informed in advance of the NBI's planned raid, Alvarez said that he would have done the same given the NBI's hunch that BoC officials were in cahoots with the smugglers.

During the congressional hearing, it was revealed that the seized shipment was made prior to Alvarez assuming the BoC's directorship. Yet the embattled commissioner has had to fend off critics who have pounced on the news of the raid to accuse him of negligence or even complicity. Alvarez has denied any involvement in the alleged smuggling ring. His BoC is nonetheless under fire. Graft charges were recently filed at the National Office of the Ombudsman by anonymous aggrieved BoC employees against Alvarez, secretary of finance Cesar Purisima and finance undersecretary Guillermo Parayno Jr for allegedly overlooking extensive smuggling of used clothing into the country, which is strictly prohibited under law.

The anonymous internal complaint also alleged that the trio took in non-customs personnel to perform various official BoC functions, including administration of top staff salaries. Alvarez believes that the anonymous accusations against him are being driven by individuals and firms that have been hurt by anti-smuggling campaigns he has initiated and overseen in line with Aquino's anti-corruption drive. That campaign includes at least 32 alleged smuggling cases that the BoC has recommended for prosecution to the justice department, including big ticket complaints against Pilipinas Shell Petroleum Corp ($551 million), Phoenix Petroleum Philippines Inc ($116 million) and Foodsphere Inc ($26 million).

It's still unclear how much, if any, high-level corruption the congressional hearings into the alleged Bigcas smuggling ring will unearth. Yet some observers already sense hints of a behind-the-scenes deal that will allow him to escape sanction. Bigcas has maintained his freedom despite the strong evidence against him, and failed to appear in court for a hearing on Monday where the head of the Justice Department was in attendance. That's sentsignals to some that Aquino officials are either unwilling or unable to deliver on his government's corruption-busting pledge, especially when it potentially involves high-level officials.

By Joel D Adriano independent consultant and award-winning freelance journalist. He was a sub-editor for the business section of The Manila Times and writes for ASEAN BizTimes, Safe Democracy and People's Tonight.

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