By Jeanne Michael Penaranda, Correspondent
SUBIC FREEPORT – Is the Subic Freeport now the smuggling capital in Central and Northern Luzon?
The poser is raised by authorities, traders and visitors of the freeport, once touted as the future Singapore or Hong Kong of the Philippines, following recent reports of smuggling of expensive cars and trucks, oil and petroleum products, and lately, agricultural products.
Only last month, millions of pesos worth of smuggled white onions, fish, and frozen meat products were discovered in 17 container vans at the Port of Subic Bay, according to Samahang Industriya ng Agrikultura (Sinag) President Rosendo So.
Last August, an attempt to smuggle around 140,000 bags — or 7,021 metric tons — of imported white refined sugar from Thailand worth ₱45.62 million was reported by authorities, resulting in the suspension of at least six Bureau of Customs personnel.
Due to the reported rampant smuggling through the Subic freeport, some lawmakers urged the closure of the port which officials of the Subic Bay Metropolitan Authority (SBMA) like Chairman and Administrator Rolen Paulino branded as “unrealistic,” adding it would not solve the problem.
“Unless Subic Port cleans up its act, we should seriously consider just closing the whole thing down for now, embargoing the import documents, and purging personnel,” said Rep. Joey Salceda, chairman of the House Committee on Ways and Means and one of the many advocating the closure of the freeport.
“The brazenness – it wouldn’t happen if the smugglers aren’t confident they have conspirators in the ports,” Salceda said.
Salceda noted that his committee conducted investigations into tobacco and petroleum smuggling in March 2021, and on agricultural smuggling in April 2022 which pointed to Subic freeport as a major conduit and hub for smuggling in the country.
Among those confiscated at the port last December were beef, pork, fish, mackerel, bread, white onions, buffalo meat and squid, said So.
So said that based on his estimate, one container van contained at least 25 metric tons of white onions amounting to P7.5 million.
According to So, the smuggled agricultural products came from China.
“The buffalo meat came from India and transported to China before being brought to the Philippines,” So noted.
This prompted the House of Representatives Committee on Ways and Means to conduct an investigation on alleged rampant agricultural smuggling at Subic Port after millions of pesos worth of smuggled goods were recently seized at the freeport.
In a statement, Albay Rep. Joey Salceda said the “nonchalance” of the Subic Bay Metropolitan Authority (SBMA) in the face of legitimate concerns about smuggling through the port is “unacceptable”, as it shows the “kind of institutional inertia that breeds corruption and kills local Philippine industries.”
“Probes as recently as 2020, 2021 and 2022 show that Subic is a haven for both technical and actual smuggling,” Salceda said.
He noted that at least four seizures of smuggled agricultural products were made in Subic in December alone.
“Any government agency with some vestige of authority cannot call itself nonchalant or indifferent, especially in the face of a monstrous, job-killing and predatory enemy like large-scale smuggling,” he said.
Salceda claimed that there is credible information that the Subic port undercharges tariffs per container van by just as much as 1/8th of the actual tariff dues, or around P100,000 per container van of imported meat instead of P800,000.
“We are prepared to name names at the proper time. For now, we will protect our sources,” he said.
He also claimed that there are well-known brands in the meat industry procuring from smugglers.
Salceda warned that Presidential Decree No. 1612 or the Anti-Fencing Law penalizes buying items that one should know is from crime, such as smuggling.
“We will point them out in the proper time. The Ways and Means Committee will aggressively run after them,” he said.
He plans to recommend changes to the implementing rules and regulations of the said law to complement and reconcile the visitorial powers of the police and the visitorial powers of the Bureau of Customs under the Customs Modernization and Tariff Act.
“As always, the Committee will both try to catch perpetrators but also deal with the issue in a more long-term way through reforms in policy and government procedures,” he said.
Salceda said the panel will “focus strongly” on helping the Marcos administration in its crackdown on smuggling.
“President Marcos wants to fight the double whammy of high domestic agri prices and high rates of agri smuggling which benefit only the smugglers. We join him in that fight,” he said.