MANILA – President Rodrigo Duterte ordered a military “takeover” of the Bureau of Customs in response to allegations of widespread corruption and involvement in drug smuggling against the agency.
Customs’ employees will be placed in “floating status” while the Armed Forces run its operations, Duterte said in a speech during a birthday party for former Foreign Affairs secretary Alan Peter Cayetano in Davao City on Sunday night.
But Justice secretary Menardo Guevarra believes putting the military at the helm of Customs operations is only a “temporary measure” to prevent the entry of illegal drugs into the country.
“They (Customs employees) will be replaced, all of them, by military men. It will be a takeover of the Armed Forces while we are sorting out how to effectively meet the challenges of corruption in this country,” Duterte said.
“I want to put on notice everybody in the Bureau of Customs. They are all in floating status. Maybe start again working, but I said, they are all floating status,” he added.
Duterte ordered Customs’ intelligence unit, which will be placed at Malacañang’s gymnasium, to report to him. Philippines Coast Guard officers, on the other hand, will be detailed at the Customs police.
“I was forced to take drastic action, given the dirty games being played at the BOC (Bureau of Customs), in which corrupt officials hide behind procedural requirements to keep from being rooted out,” said the President.
The Bureau of Customs was under fire recently over a shabu shipment that slipped past it and the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency believes has already been distributed across the country.
The PDEA estimated the cost of shabu allegedly contained in magnetic lifters found empty in a warehouse in Cavite at P11 billion.
Duterte transferred Customs commissioner Isidro Lapeña to the Technical Education and Skills Development Authority in light of the controversy.
Lapeña’s predecessor, Nicanor Faeldon, resigned after P6.4 billion worth of shabu slipped past Customs authorities in May last year. Faeldon was later assigned to head the Bureau of Corrections.
Guevarra allayed fears that putting the military in charge of the Customs would violate the Constitutionally enshrined civilian supremacy rule.
“The BOC chief is a civilian. The BOC is under the DOF (Department of Finance), and the DOF is under the President,” Guevarra said.
He added: “Putting the Bureau of Customs under the watchful eye of the AFP is a temporary measure to ensure that massive entry of illegal drugs, which threatens public safety, is immediately stopped. The bureau is headed by retired General Rey Guerrero, who is now a civilian.”
Some senators questioned the legality of Duterte’s order.
Shabu slipping past Customs does not constitute lawless violence, invasion and rebellion – requirements stated in the Constitution for the President to be able to call out the military, said Francis Escudero.
“Perhaps what [Duterte] meant was for the AFP to assist in the law enforcement function of the Bureau of Customs which, to a certain degree can be done as with other law enforcement activities where the AFP has been called upon to assist the PNP (Philippine National Police),” he said on Twitter.
Risa Hontiveros, on the other hand, said the Constitution bars the appointment or designation of military officers to civilian positions in government.
“By openly pushing for the military takeover of a civilian agency, President Duterte is violating the constitutional principle of the supremacy of civilian authority over the military,” she said in a statement. “What’s stopping the President from ordering a military takeover of other government agencies as well?”
“This is backdoor dictatorship. Galawang diktador, pasimpleng martial law,” she added.
For his part, Senate blue ribbon committee chairman Richard Gordon sided with Duterte. “The fact of the matter is the main door of the country is being used to bring large, large, large quantities of drugs, and that constitutes lawless violence,” he said.
“It’s a call of the President under the Constitution to suppress violence, and that is allowed. He’s not declaring martial law, he’s not declaring [the suspension of] habeas corpus,” Gordon said. (Reports from Adrian Stewart Co and CNN Philippines/PN)