MANILA,  September 28, 2004
By Marichu Villanueva - Smugglers might soon find themselves in the same boat as kidnappers, drug lords and other heinous criminals.

President Arroyo ordered yesterday Customs Commissioner George Jereos to come up with an "order of battle" of the most notorious smugglers in the country who are defrauding the government of millions of pesos by misdeclaring their imports of highly dutiable goods.

Mrs. Arroyo issued the order during a command conference with top officials and the 15 regional port collectors of the Customs bureau.

Among the revenue enhancement and anti-smuggling measures the bureau agreed to adopt during the meeting include a "closer inspection" of packages brought in by returning overseas Filipinos (balikbayans) for second-hand clothes being passed off as personal effects.

Customs also agreed to set up a website for the reporting of smuggling activities, increased coordination with private sector anti-smuggling groups and intensified coordination with regional and international agencies.

Briefing reporters after attending the first few minutes of the command conference, palace spokesman Ignacio Bunye said Jereos had reported on the status of 112 collection cases filed by the bureau in various courts against importers found violating the Customs and Tariff Code.

"The President reiterated her instructions to the Customs commissioner to really go hammer and tongs against smugglers," he said. "The President wants the commissioner of Customs to prepare an order of battle of smugglers in the same manner that an order of battle has been prepared in the case of kidnappers and drug lords."

Bunye would not say if the "order of battle" against smugglers would take the same "form" as the poster and broadcast campaign undertaken by the National Anti-Kidnapping Task Force (NAKTF).

The NAKTF had put up posters and broadcast TV spots on the country’s most wanted kidnappers that gave the public the chance to tip off law enforcement authorities on the whereabouts of the criminal suspects.

"The idea is to be able to identify these alleged smugglers and to come up with an action plan to bring them to justice," Bunye said.

Bunye dismissed as "farfetched" the wisecrack that the name of the President’s husband, Jose Miguel Arroyo, would come up in the "order of battle" amid the persistent but unproved rumors that the First Gentleman was into big-time smuggling.

"I’m sure the Customs commissioner would come up with a credible list," he said.

Bunye said the specifics of the campaign were best left to the discretion of its chief implementer.

"We leave that to commissioner Jereos to answer. Those are operational details," he said.

Bunye revealed that the President had distributed to the BOC officials copies of a newly signed Executive Order 363 that gives Customs commissioners "almost complete powers" and "wide latitude" to conduct their campaign against smugglers.

Mrs. Arroyo announced last week the existence of the EO where she authorizes the Customs commissioner to wield the powers of the abolished Economic Intelligence and Investigation Bureau (EIIB).

But Bunye clarified that EO 363 did not revive the EIIB, which was abolished by former President Joseph Estrada after officials of the agency were found to be in cahoots with smuggling syndicates.

Under EO 363 the President empowered the Customs commissioner to:

• Prepare and implement appropriate and effective measures to prevent and suppress all forms of smuggling, especially of rice, sugar, vegetables, vehicles, alcohol and dangerous drugs.

• Effect searches, seizures and arrests on smuggling cases or apply for the issuance of judicial warrants as may be necessary.

• Investigate, file and prosecute criminal, civil and administrative cases against smugglers.

• Enlist the assistance of any department, bureau, office or instrumentality of government, including the Armed Forces, the Philippine National Police and the Coast Guard.

Earlier Mrs. Arroyo announced that she was giving Jereos two months to prove his effectiveness in combating smuggling before she revived the defunct National Anti-Smuggling Task Force.

In their performance report to the President, Jereos said that from January to August this year the bureau collected P81.078 billion in revenues, higher by 10.7 percent than their target of P73.264 billion.

The Customs bureau has a target of P100 billion in collections for the whole year.

Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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