IN August. it was touted as a momentous victory in President Duterte’s war against illegal drugs— the interception by a combined team of the Bureau of Customs (BOC) and Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency (PDEA) of 355 kilograms of shabu (methamphetamine hydrochloride) hidden inside the hollow chambers of two magnetic scrap lifters at the Manila International Container Port.
With an estimated street value of P3.4 billion, it was supposed to be one of the largest drug confiscations in our history, and a very significant one as shabu accounts for over 95 percent of illegal drugs used in the country.
However, just a few days later, the PDEA raided a warehouse in Cavite where they found four exactly similar magnetic lifters. Using its especially trained sniffer dogs, the PDEA concluded that it had contained shabu, which had already been removed.
Extrapolating from the amount of shabu found in the two lifters earlier intercepted, the PDEA estimated that the four cylinders contained 1,600 kg of the illegal drug, worth a huge P6.8 billion in the streets.
PDEA chief Aaron Aquino claimed the shabu had already found its way to the market, which explains why its street prices had suddenly dropped from P6,000-P8,000 per gram to only P1,600-P2,000.
In his testimony at the Senate investigation headed by Sen. Richard Gordon, Aquino claimed: “The shipment intercepted was a decoy, part of the modus operandi of narco-syndicates, to make us focus attention on the supposed big catch, but actually distracting us from the bigger shipment. Both shipments, one with two lifters and the other with four lifters, were by one and the same narco-syndicate.”
However, the Philippine National Police and the Bureau of Customs both claimed that the PDEA was wrong. They reported that they took cotton swabs on the magnetic lifters at the Cavite warehouse. The results showed no traces of shabu.
PDEA’s Aquino, however, disputed that report, pointing out that they used the same laboratory in swabbing a container van suspected of having contained shabu, and came out with a negative result. Aquino claimed his agents had in fact seized P4 billion worth of shabu from the same container van.
Aquino and Customs head Isidro Lapeña traded barbs, blaming each other. Aquino alleged that there were drug syndicates that had their accomplices in Customs. Lapeña, however, pointed out that if Customs failed to detect the shabu hidden in the lifters, it is the PDEA which is to blame as it is the agency focusing on illegal-drugs , and should have had the intelligence information on the shipment and alerted Customs.
That seems like a reasonable argument. However , Senator Gordon tore this to pieces after extracting information from those involved in the shipment. After being detained for a few days at the Senate for contempt for refusing to answer some of Gordon’s questions, the consignee of the shipment of magnetic lifters, one Marina de la Cruz disclosed that an official of the bureau, Jimmy Guban of the Customs Intelligence and Investigation Service asked her to stand as consignee for the shipment which was actually for certain other people.
After himself being detained at the Senate, also for contempt, Guban testified at the Gordon committee hearing that former PNP senior superintendent Eduardo Acierto was behind the shabu shipments, both for the first two intercepted lifters and for the second four that were not.
Acierto denied the allegation, claiming it was he who even tipped off Customs about the first shipment contained in the two lifters, and that he knew nothing about the second. A secret report by
the PDEA and the PNP in September however claimed that Acierto has been one of high-ranking officials who had made a career in anti-illegal drug operations, but who actually was involved with drug syndicates.
Customs official Guban himself was among those in the confidential report’s list of such officials involved in the illegal drug trade, who were allegedly was close to Taiwan and China’s drug syndicates. (See my column Oct. 10, “High-ranking Aquino anti-drug police officials themselves involved in illegal drug trade”)
The claim that Customs officials knew about the shabu shipment was bolstered by the testimony in the Senate of Customs officer Lourdes V. Mangaoang, who had headed the container x-ray unit for five years. She testified that her review of the x-ray scans of the magnetic lifters showed that there was clearly something hidden inside their hollow chambers. However, the X-ray operator did not call for a physical inspection of the lifter, that could have shown whether there was contraband inside them or not.
Worse, Mangaoang claimed that as early as May Lapeña had been given intelligence reports that drug syndicates were planning to slip in illegal drugs through the ports but did not take additional precautions to stop these.
The drug syndicates—reportedly from China—that undertook such shabu shipments amounting to billions of pesos would not have simply trusted that their shabu was so very well hidden in the magnetic lifters that they would be undetected by Customs’ X-rays. That would have left too much to chance their billions of pesos in “investments.”
With that much at stake, they would have been more than willing to “invest’ a few hundred millions of pesos to make sure that Customs staff look the other way, and for a diversion operation—the interception of the first two lifters – to be undertaken.
What is worrying is that Customs head Lapeña, as it were, “doth protests too much,” that his agency had no way of intercepting the shipment. Why should he be so defensive of his staff?
While this controversy has been buried in the din of the start of electoral season, Duterte should take this particular bull by the horns. If Customs is the channel for billions of pesos in shabu to enter the country, his war against illegal drugs will in effect be just going after small-time pushers, who in the conditions of poverty in this country, will be continuously replaced as long as there is a constant supply of shabu from abroad.