By Raïssa Robles
This interview with Customs Deputy Commissioner Danilo Lim and the accompanying sidebar on smuggling were recently published in Asian Dragon magazine. I am posting these with the magazine’s permission.
If the former jailed rebel general Danilo Lim continues to look grim these days, he has good reason to be.
Lim, 56, has been handed the chance to “put my money where my mouth is.” He was offered the post of deputy commissioner for intelligence operations of the Bureau of Customs, which was the farthest thing he had in mind.
You see, Lim said, he preferred a government position that would directly impact the lives of the poverty-stricken masses, such as the The Local Water Utilities Administration (LWUA), the National Irrigation Administration (NIA) or the National Electrification Administration (NEA).
But never the Bureau of Customs that has a system so thickly encrusted with corruption. It would not be a badge of honor but of shame to work there because “if you do some hanky-panky and even if you don’t, you are stained by the stigma,” he said.
The administration of President Benigno Aquino III, however, refused to give up on Lim whom the Liberal Party had fielded unsuccessfully for senator last year.
Starting May this year, three personalities close to Aquino lobbied with him to take the No. 2 post at Customs.
Secretary Mar Roxas and I talked. He told me he wanted me to join this bureau and that he was making a memo to the president recommending I join this bureau. I told him I’m not crazy about this because I prefer other agencies more direct with the masses.
In early August, Executive Secretary Paquito Ochoa followed up the offer. Lim replied,:
Is another agency possible?
Then Finance Secretary Cesar Purisima, whose office oversees customs, phoned him.
Lim explained why he was very wary about accepting a post that others were lusting for:
I have been consistent in my stance against corruption. I have been detained for more than seven years all in all. I won’t allow seven years of sacrifice to go down the drain because I’m assigned in this bureau.
in the end, though, Lim caved in –
I told myself, I didn’t ask for this job. I didn’t apply for this. Now that I’m here, I’ll make the best out of this. Put my money where my mouth is and show some results.
When President Aquino personally phoned Lim before his oath-taking, they talked for nearly an hour. Aquino asked him to help raise revenues, address corruption and smuggling.
He told me, of course anything illegal you have to act on. Don’t entertain people who use my name or drop names of relatives, or close friends. Don’t believe them or entertain them.
Just 12 days into the job, Lim has criss-crossed the archipelago to personally lead the seizure of misdeclared goods such as rice, vehicles and onions.
If Lim keeps this up, he would be directly helping the country’s poorest sector – the farmers.
The farmers consider onions as the test case for the Bureau of Customs. Last year, according to Ernesto Ordoñez, a former trade and agricultural underseretary who now heads the NGO Agriwatch, KASAMNE Onion Growers chair Leandro Tañedo told then Customs Commissioner Joselito Alvarez that they were hurting due to onion smuggling. Their break-even farm gate price was P20 per kilo but they had to sell at P16 per kilo to compete with onions smuggled from China.
Ordoñez said they had earlier given the bureau a list of 63 shipments of onions that came in without import permits. The officials before Biazon and Lim did nothing about it.
What Lim now calls this “cat and mouse work” has been a drastic change from the four years of detention he had to endure until May 31 last year:
I couldn’t do much (then) because I was not allowed to do so many things” including use a mobile phone and computer.
For eight months he was placed in solitary confinement in Tanay, Rizal. The detention area was spacious but the walls were high and he could talk to no one.
Maybe they wanted to break me.
I raised chickens and read some books, mostly biographies.
It was actually Lim’s second taste of detention. The first was after the 1989 bloody coup attempt where he was among the junior officers who led a week-long siege of Makati business district. Had Lim’s side won, Aquino would never have been president and Rozzano “Ruffy” Biazon would not be Lim’s boss today. Biazon’s father was a general on the opposite side defending the military headquarters from Lim’s fellow renegades.
After three years in the brig, he obtained amnesty and was allowed to go back to soldiering. He was after all a prominent member of Philippine Military Academy Class of 1978 (which had adopted President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo as an honorary classmate). He had topped the PMA entrance exam.
He also studied twice in the United States – at the United States Military Academy at West Point after also topping its entrance exam and at the Infantry School in Fort Benning, Georgia, which he finished at the top of his batch.
There were rumors that a rehabilitated Lim might even be on track to be a military chief. However, on February 23, 2006, Scout Ranger chief Lim and marine Colonel Ariel Querubin tried to persuade the Armed Forces Chief-of-Staff General Generoso Senga to go along with their plan to publicly withdraw military support from then President Gloria Macapagal-Arryo.
Both officers were arrested and detained. The following year, though, while appearing in a court hearing, Lim simply walked out of the court room with other detained officers to hole up at the Peninsula Manila hotel in Makati City and again called for Arroyo’s ouster.
The siege was called off when the expected “people power” failed to materialize. Lim obtained amnesty from President Aquino in October 2010.
In July this year before a University of the Philippines forum, he tried to explain his personal reasons for rebelling against the system, instead of embracing it and making money out of it.
But no matter how hard I tried to do the right thing, I was constantly hounded by corruption so pervasive.
I realized if I did nothing, if I stand idly by while I watched my people being robbed….I would myself be complicit of these immoral acts.
He said he wanted to be “part of the solution” and not just a soldier trained to obey without question.
He also theorized that-
Eventually we would realize that cleansing in the military would really amount to nothing without accompanying alterations in the bigger picture – the bureaucracy, government and whole society – if we agree the military is a small picture that reflects the bigger picture.
He had then concluded that –
If the universe is corrupt then the subset (like the military) would also be corrupt.
It was for these very reasons that he decided to accept the post at customs.
Like the new Customs Commissioner Biazon, Lim said he believes in putting up functioning systems.
One of his self-imposed first tasks is –
To identify the weakest links, the loopholes…(because) a weak point in the chain renders the whole chain weak.
He intends to start by examining the acccreditation of existing companies or entities dealing with customs. That means tediously weeding out fly-by-night companies and fictitious companies.
He has also relocated his office to a room across that of Biazon for easier coordination.
We’ve heard a lot of horror stories about the practices here. What Senator (Panfilo) Lacson said really had basis.
Lacson had warned that every Friday afternoon, customs officials had the habit of disappearing in order to collect their cut in bribes.
Lim has tried to look on the bright side:
There are (customs) people who do good. I guess it’s just a matter of giving the right motivation and policies. That’s the challenge.
He has yet to be offered a bribe –
I think they know me better to make an offer.
Aside from catching smugglers and helping raise revenues, Lim faces yet another unfamiliar challenge – beating the daily traffic to and from office.
Below is an overview of the gigantic task facing the officials of the Bureau of Customs:
A mammoth job
When Rozzano “Ruffy Biazon and his deputy for operations Danilo Lim took over last month, the bureau had on file 20 known really big time smugglers.
Smuggling is so rampant and yet no updated study of its extent has been done in recent years.
Recent estimates are shocking.
Ernesto Ordoñez, a former trade and agricultural undersecretary who now heads the NGO Agriwatch, once told Customs Commissioner Rozzano Biazon’s predecessor that the government could be losing around 120 billion pesos a year in uncollected revenues due to “outright smuggling” and “technical smuggling”. The latter includes undervaluation and misclassification of imported goods.
Ordoñez arrived at this sum in this manner.
Agriwatch noted that the International Monetary Fund recorded Philippine import figures from 2002 to 2007 at US$47.5 billion.
The Philippine National Statistics Office placed imports at US$46.5 billion, or close to the IMF estimate.
But actual records at the Bureau of Customs placed imports for the same period at only US$32.5 billion.
Agriwatch and other agricultural leaders had asked Joselito Alvarez when he newly assumed the post of Customs Commissioner last year:
“Could the difference of about $15 billion (P653 billion) represent the value of smuggled goods coming into the country every year?,” Agriwatch asked.
A totally different source paints the same grim picture.
In August this year, the whistle-blowing website Wikileaks leaked a cable purportedly written by US Ambassador to Manila Francis Ricciardone. Marked “sensitive” and dated May 2, 2005, it was entitled “Embracing the dragon: the Philippines deepens economic engagement with China.”
Ricciardone noted the yawning gap between trade figures coming from Beijing with those of Manila.
For instance, China’s General Administration of Customs placed 2004 bilateral trade with the Philippines at US$13.3 billion. But the Philippine NSO said the same was only US$5.185 billion that year.
This discrepancy between the data collected by the Chinese and Philippine governments suggests that a great deal of the trade between these two countries is happening under the radar.
The Philippine press has recently carried stories about local producers of shoes, textiles, and appliances that have been negatively affected by the large-scale smuggling of Chinese goods. – Raissa Robles
Both Biazon and his deputy Lim recently noted that goods mostly being smuggled were vehicles, oil products, food products like onions, used garments, electronics, guns and illegal drugs – not necessarily in that order.