Customs and tradition

Double Vision

Antonio V. Figueroa

The issue of smuggling agricultural products, from onions to garlic and fish, has preoccupied much of the Senate’s public hearings recently. The same state is reflected in the House where resource speakers, for being shifty, are cited in contempt and jailed in the premises of Congress until the desired truth the lawmakers have been asking for, has been served without evasion.

Why smuggling continues to flourish in our country is not anybody’s blame but a clear display that the customs bureau’s leaky wall continues to allow contrabands to enter the country. The ease that smuggled goods penetrate the ports is as shadowy as the failure of the State to recycle corrupt examiners involved or suspected to be engaged in technical smuggling.

Despite existing laws modernizing the Bureau of Customs, the government has dilly-dallied in finding funds for the project. In contrast, even in the absence of readily available money, the government goes the extra mile in satisfying the demand of lawmaker for dubious allotments in form of lump sums, pork barrel, and confidential and intelligence funds (CIFs).

Recently, as if to debunk this assertion, the customs bureau, as if by design, has succeeded in raiding numerous warehouses that have been keeping contrabands. As expected, the discoveries have earned plaudits from various sectors and, for a brief period, transformed the agency into determined animal willing to take on smugglers and file cases against them. Still, that does answer the query why illegal articles are easily trafficked into the country.

To say that the country’s lengthy coastlines is partly to be blamed for the spread of smuggling is an oft-repeated excuse. Maybe this is true because our porous borders, given the limited manpower and equipment in many ports and the failure of law enforcement to efficiently secure our littorals, penetrating the shorelines using crafts disguised as fishing vessels is expected.

But then, why are contrabands in containers are able to pass through the ports and not detected even if we have sophisticated x-ray machines in major piers?

All along, we have always suspected that the bureau’s wall has some leaks. Meaning, despite the installation of urbane gadgets that detect articles inside containers, the ones manning the machines have the discretion to allow or bar the entry of hot items. In short, it boils down to the moral values a person embraces and possesses when performing his duty as a public servant.

The declaration that not all people in the bureaucracy are corrupt is a much-abused liner. That statement, though, does not cure the system already put in place at the customs bureau, and does not discourage the commission of an anomaly. For if the system has been working to ensure a better layering of checks and rechecks, smuggling could have been reduced to a minimum.

Compared to Singapore, the world’s busiest port, smuggling of contrabands is a minor chink in the armor. Of course, there are human errors and oversights that happen once in a while but their occurrences are far and between, unlike in our ports where the detection of contrabands happens in many cases after the smuggled items have been delivered to the warehouses. What this scenario reveals is that illegal imports go unnoticed because the examiners and x-ray machine operators allow them to pass unobserved.

In recent weeks, there was an unconfirmed news from the customs bureau that port managers will have shorter assignments and customs personnel, to minimize patronage and familiarity, will be reassigned, rotated, or divorced, even for a short period, from positions that are sources of bribes. Though the strategy sounds enticing, studying the impact of this solution to the collection targets of government is an important aspect.

As it is now, the bureau, even under the present leadership of people who are known for their shady deals, seems to perform better than before. (AVF)

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