President Rodrigo Duterte on Thursday sacked the customs chief and other top agency officials, a day after a congressional inquiry heard that suspected Chinese traffickers had smuggled in billions of pesos in methamphetamine despite the government’s vaunted war on drugs.
Duterte said he had ordered Isidro Lapeña, chief of the Bureau of Customs, as well as other key officials there to vacate their posts in a re-organization of the agency.
“Everyone out, to the last man – the commissioners are out, the department heads out,” Duterte said in a speech to the coast guard, adding that Rey Leonardo Guerrero, a former military general who heads the state Maritime Industry Authority, would replace Lapeña.
However, Lapeña, a former police general and one of Duterte’s trusted men, would be transferred to another agency tasked with overseeing the government’s skills development program, the president said.
Lapeña had been heavily criticized because of a huge meth shipment that entered the country in August and was allegedly hidden inside four magnetic lifters used at the customs bureau.
The Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) said it had found meth residue inside the empty lifters and that a drug-sniffing dog had pointed to traces of the substance. Some 11 Chinese suspects were linked to the illegal shipment of meth valued at around 11 billion pesos (U.S. $204.8 million).
Lapeña had dismissed the finding as speculation, a position that Duterte had echoed earlier on.
But at a congressional inquiry in Manila on Wednesday, experts testified that the magnetic lifters appeared to be designed specifically to conceal illegal shipments.
Lapeña back-pedaled when presented with this information. He said he now believed that drugs could have been smuggled in.
“With the circumstantial evidence and testimonies, as an investigator I will tend to believe indeed they contained drugs,” he said.
Asked by reporters early Thursday if he believed that drug smugglers had compromised the customs bureau under his watch, Lapeña answered in the affirmative. But, he insisted, he still enjoyed the president’s trust.
“That is the handiwork of the drug syndicate,” Lapeña said, adding that he was taking “very seriously” DEA estimates that the drug shipment was worth billions.
Lapeña, who had once served in Duterte’s anti-drug campaign as a police general, is a close ally and aide of the president, whose deadly war on narcotics has left nearly 5,000 suspected drug dealers and pushers dead.
‘Number one protector of big-time drug lords’
Most of those who were gunned down were small-time drug suspects, although several local politicians were also killed in the crackdown. The president had warned that the country risked becoming a narco-state. He often waved a list with names of judges, politicians, police and military officers, who, he claimed, were involved in the drug trade.
Rights groups have called on the government to stop the killings. At least two complaints for murder have been filed against Duterte at the International Criminal Court. But Duterte has dismissed the allegations, and subsequently pulled the Philippines out of a treaty that created the ICC.
Sen. Leila De Lima, who had criticized Duterte’s war on drugs was jailed after the president accused the lawmaker of bankrolling her candidacy to the Senate with money from drug lords. She has denied the accusation.
“The biggest question in the Duterte administration’s drug war is not being answered by Malacañang is its anemic response to the smuggling of billions of pesos worth of shabu (meth) when compared to its impunity in killing alleged small-time pushers and addicts,” De Lima said this week in a statement.
Duterte was “exceptionally indifferent” in going after real, big-time drug offenders, she alleged.
“One is tempted to believe that he is protecting them,” she said. “And that his drug war is nothing but a sham to cover-up his own role as the number one protector of big-time drug lords in the country,” De Lima said.