‘Frustrated’ Senate wants special court vs. agri smugglers

BOC expresses full support, sees faster resolution of smuggling cases

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A JOINT committee of the Senate on Tuesday, May 2, 2023, started its deliberation on the proposal by Sen. Cynthia Villar for the creation of a “special court” specifically tasked to handle all criminal complaints against the smuggling of agricultural products.

Under Senate Bill 1963, Villar, also chair of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Food and Agrarian Reform, said the new court would handle “cases involving smuggling, hoarding, profiteering and cartel of agricultural products and to ensure that individuals and organizations involved in these activities are held accountable for their actions.”

“This includes imposing penalties, fines, and other legal sanctions for those found guilty,” she added in the introduction to her pet bill.

If created, the new court would be under the supervision of the Supreme Court.

The measure clearly indicates the “frustration” of Villar and other stakeholders as despite the law against agricultural smuggling passed 7 years ago, it has remained as the bane of Philippine agriculture and economy.

Villar is also the principal author of RA 10845 or the ‘Anti-Agricultural Smuggling Act of 2016’ that was signed into law on May 23, 2016, by Pres. Benigno Aquino III and which already imposed heavy penalties on those engaged in the smuggling of agricultural products.

Among others, under Section 3 of the law, “large scale smuggling” of agricultural products is already considered an act of “economic sabotage” punishable with life imprisonment. The punishment also entails that suspects are denied the privilege of bail.

The law also provides that “large scale agricultural smuggling” or “economic sabotage” is committed when the value of smuggled products, as assessed by the Bureau of Customs, is placed at more than P1 million for the likes of sugar, corn, pork, poultry, garlic, onion, carrots, fish, and cruciferous vegetables and, P10 million for rice.

However, Villar noted that since RA 10845 was enacted, the problem of agri smuggling has persisted.

An investigation by her committee last January 16, 2023 that was prompted by the surge on the retail price of onions that reached P750 per kilo during the Christmas season disclosed that “cartels” have taken over the importation of onions while “fixing” the prices of the local version, “a clear scenario of price manipulation,” Villar added.

Prior to this, a controversial issuance of a permit to import sugar resulted to the resignation last September 17, 2022 of Executive Secretary Atty. Victor Rodriguez.

“With all the issues on smuggling, hoarding, profiteering and cartel of agricultural products, it is baffling that no one is prosecuted,” Villar noted.

Data from the Food and Fertilizer Center for Asian and Pacific Region (FFCAP) also disclosed that between 1986 to 2009, more than $1.96 billion of smuggled rice entered the country.

Next top products to be smuggled were refined sugar worth $448.2 million, onion ($259.6 million), pork ($117.5 million), chicken ($27.8 million), ginger ($ 7.8 million), and carrots and turnips ($6.5 million).

BOC welcomes Agri Smuggling Court

The Bureau of Customs (BOC) for its part, welcomed the proposal of Sen. Villar. In a statement, the agency further expressed the belief that the creation of the special court “will expedite the resolution of criminal cases involving agricultural products and will ultimately curb smuggling activities.”

“The BOC remains committed to cooperating with the Legislative Department, which is currently deliberating on the bill creating the said court,” the statement added.

During the hearing, the agency was represented by Atty. Karen Ann Yambao, from the Legal Service.

The BOC further noted that it is in “constant coordination” with the Department of Justice (DOJ) “for the successful prosecution of the complaints filed by BOC.”

Last March 8, 2023, barely two weeks after he assumed as customs commissioner, Comm. Bienvenido Rubio went out of his way to meet with Justice Secretary Jesus Crispin Remulla to discuss ways and means of further hastening the prosecution of smuggling complaints filed by the BOC.

Although some 400 cases have been filed by the BOC before the  DOJ since 2016, less than 10 have reached the trial stage and not one conviction has been recorded thus far.

The BOC added that to address the issue, it conducted two consecutive “sessions” with DOJ prosecutors, on April 13 to 14 and on April 20 to 21, 2023 “aimed to provide clarity on the technical processes of the BOC and to recalibrate the complaints to be filed by the BOC.”

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