Hontiveros urges Senate investigation into ‘gov’t-sponsored’ sugar smuggling

The smuggled sugar at the Manila International Container Port (MICP) on Friday, February 17.*BoC photo

Sen. Risa Hontiveros is calling on the Senate Blue Ribbon Committee to investigate the entry of Thai sugar into the country through the Port of Batangas in what appears to be “government-sponsored smuggling.”

The shipment of sugar in 260 units of 20-foot containers arrived February 9 six days before the Sugar Regulatory Administration (SRA) issued Sugar Order No. 6 on February 15 for the importation of 440,000 metric tons of sugar, she said in a Senate press briefing on Tuesday, February 21.

“That a shipment arrived on February 9 appears to be confirmed by this letter to the Bureau of Customs from the Department of Agriculture dated February 14, 2023, flagging shipments of sugar by All Asian Counter Trade Inc., aboard three vessels and using three shippers,” she said.

She said an undated draft memorandum order identified three importers and gave them allocations ahead of Sugar Order No. 6.

A letter of Agriculture Undersecretary Domingo Panganiban on January 13 also allegedly gave All Asian Counter Trade a 240,000 metric tons import allocation, Hontiveros said.

If we follow Sugar Order No. 6, the earliest possible date for imported sugar to enter the Philippines is March 1, she said.

“What other conclusion can be drawn other than that this is government-sponsored smuggling? Who is responsible for this? Should it be subjected to same level of laser scrutiny that subjected the actions of Usec Sebastian, et al. last year?” she asked.

The 260 containers of sugar were not only shipped without authority from the SRA, they were also brought in via the Super Green Lane system of the Bureau of Customs — in which a shipment gets the VIP treatment as it goes through Customs and out of the port, she added.

Unless there was a misdeclaration by the shipper, the BoC is supposed to have known that sugar was inside those 260 containers, Hontiveros said.

Hontiveros also said she has other concerns with the Sugar Order No. 6 itself.

Why is the Department of Agriculture seeming to have such broad discretion over the sugar importation? she said.

“The DA can approve seemingly any amount allocation without any restriction. There appears to be no criteria, no ceiling, no formula with which to determine how allocation is given to each importer. It is then technically possible to just give allocations to three favored importers,” she said.

Hontiveros also questioned the amount set for the sugar importation performance bond.

She asked why the DA, and not the SRA Board was setting all the importation standards and policies.

“Can a sugar order be retroactive to cover shipments that arrived before its affectivity date, and before the notice of award allocation? If the answer is no, then sugar shipments that arrived must be confiscated immediately as smuggled sugar and its importers blacklisted and criminally charged with violation of the Anti-Agricultural Smuggling Act,” she said.

Hontiveros also said that she received information that new sugar shipments by All-Asian arrived during the weekend.

“Where is this brazenness coming from? Who is emboldening these companies?” she asked.

“Is it really good policy to grant such broad powers to agencies to determine how much import allocations shall be given to eligible importers, sans any ceilings, formula, and criteria? If the answer is no, then we really need to rethink how we do sugar importation in this country. Does it promote competition or does it sponsor the emergence of new cartels?” she added.

The BoC also reported that Customs Commissioner Bienvenido Rubio led the physical examination of five shipments containing P90-million worth of smuggled sugar and cigarettes at the Manila International Container Port (MICP) on Friday, February 17.

The containers, which arrived between January 5 and February 12 contained misdeclared and undeclared sugar and cigarettes, the BoC said.

“These contrabands threaten the economy and put Filipino consumers at risk. I’d like to assure everyone that we are equally relentless in our efforts to keep our borders secure from these smuggling activities,” Rubio said.

The BoC is also looking into the delivery of an estimated 5,000 metric tons of sugar through the Port of Batangas.*

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