Customs chief: Presidential bets ‘talking through their hats’ on BOC corruption
MANILA, Philippines — While most presidential candidates have the Bureau of Customs (BOC) at the top of their minds as the most corrupt government agency meriting an investigation if they win in the May 9 elections, Customs Commissioner Rey Leonardo Guerrero on Thursday pointed to many changes — for the better — in the country’s second biggest tax-collection agency.
“That was really a sad awakening for us because all the while, we were confident that we were doing good and we were doing our best against all of these issues [of corruption],” Guerrero told members of the big business groups Makati Business Club, Management Association of the Philippines, and Financial Executives Institute of the Philippines (Finex).
During last month’s televised presidential debate, almost all of the nine candidates — save for Sen. Manny Pacquiao, who chose the Department of Health (DOH) — in the running for the country’s chief executive post said that the BOC will be the first agency they’ll investigate for alleged corruption.
“The bad impression that the BOC has acquired over many decades of neglect cannot be erased in just two or three years. So this is something that we have to work on, Guerrero conceded.
Guerrero told business groups that unlike its old reputation, today’s BOC has “a lot of good men and women here in the Bureau of Customs who are committed to really transform this agency and make it worthy of the trust and confidence of our people.”
But Guerrero said he deemed that the current crop of presidential aspirants had “not much” information provided to them of the reforms undertaken at the BOC these past few years. “With due respect to the presidentiables, I believe that they were just talking through their hats when they made such a response,” the BOC chief said.
Guerrero said he already invited the presidential aspirants to visit the BOC “for us to be able to inform them of the latest developments in the Bureau of Customs and probably change some of their impressions about their preconceived notions of what is happening here.”
Guerrero rattled off a long list of the BOC’s accomplishments these past few years, including 82 percent of customs processes digitalized through 30 information and communications technology (ICT) systems already put in place en route to achieving full or 100-percent digitalization, which he had told the Inquirer will be achieved this year.
The BOC chief said digitalization of all customs procedures, with less human intervention, would eliminate graft and corruption at the BOC.
In a report last year, the World Bank said the BOC was making “good progress in advancing towards implementation” of the $88.28-million customs modernization project currently being rolled out until 2025, through a loan extended by the Washington-based multilateral lender in 2020.
Also, Guerrero said import clearance processes now only take two days, while exporting was done within a faster one day.
Guerrero also pointed to above-target collections of import duties and other taxes in 2020 and 2021 despite the COVID-19 pandemic, although revenues generated at the onset of the crisis two years ago declined compared to the pre-pandemic take in 2019 due to global borders shut down and international trade taking a hit from lockdowns imposed worldwide to contain the deadly coronavirus.
But Guerrero pointed out that last year’s record P643.6-billion collection already surpassed the pre-pandemic performance, and currently expensive oil, which contributes the bulk of the BOC’s yearly tax take, would help achieve the P679-billion goal for 2022. He said the fuel marking program being implemented since 2019 was helping fight oil smuggling, which in the past was a headache for the government and shed billions of pesos in foregone revenues.
Enforcement was also ramped up with more erring customs personnel, importers, customs brokers and middle men haled into court for smuggling charges; more seizures of smuggled items; as well as post-clearance audit of importers undertaken by the BOC, Guerrero said.
Among further reforms to be undertaken at the BOC included eliminating the paper customs baggage and currency declaration forms at ports of entry under an electronic system, which Guerrero said would help curb cash smuggling into the country.
Early this month, no less than Finance Secretary Carlos Dominguez III, who oversees the BOC, took up the cudgels for Guerrero and the agency. Dominguez — President Duterte’s chief economic manager — said that “obviously, I think [the BOC’s] a lot better now than in 2016.”
In the past, President Duterte himself often tagged the BOC as among the most corrupt in government, such that leadership in the agency switched hands several times, until Guerrero — a former military officer like his predecessors Isidro Lapeña and Nicanor Faeldon — assumed the commissioner post in late 2018.
Dominguez said he welcomes any inquiry or investigation to either verify his positive observations about the agency during the past six years or for “presidentiables” to point out areas for further improvement.
Dominguez also listed down what he thought were the BOC’s achievements during this administration — “consistently met or exceeded collection targets; digitized the majority of their processes; installed a customer service center which reduces importers’ or their agents’ contact with BOC personnel; installed video cameras which monitor BOC staff’s activities in all major ports; imbedded NBI [National Bureau of Investigation] and PDEA [Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency] officers in their offices to improve coordination; together with the BIR [Bureau of Internal Revenue] conducted raids on suspected illicit cigarette operations and warehouses; and together with the PCG [Philippine Coast Guard] patrol areas close to suspected smuggling areas to prevent unloading of illicit goods into smaller sea craft, to name a few improvements.”
“Of course, we acknowledge the need for continuing improvements,” Dominguez said, who generously praised the BOC under Guerrero’s watch during the agency’s 120th anniversary celebration last month.