When one has a gathering inside his home, he makes sure that all guests entering the house don’t bring anything that can be of harm to any of his family members and other guests. This is Philippine Bureau of Customs (BOC) Commissioner Alberto “Bert” Lina’s mantra: protecting the country from smuggled goods such as illegal drugs and unlicensed firearms.
Serving under the BOC is not new to Lina. He previously served as the head of the BOC during former President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo’s administration, where he was known for his Run After the Smugglers (RATS) program. But he resigned in July 2005 together with nine other top government officials at the height of the ‘Hello Garci’ scandal involving Arroyo, which tainted their perception of the former president’s leadership. After his first BOC stint, Lina returned to his forwarding and logistics business.
In April of this year, he came back to the BOC following the resignation of John Philip P. Sevilla. Lina accepted the responsibility to lead the agency once again because of his desire to help the country through public service.
Since Lina re-assumed the position of commissioner, the BOC has taken measures to alleviate some of the biggest problems facing the Philippines, including smuggling.
In August, the agency announced that its officials would be conducting random inspections on balikbayan boxes. This policy immediately triggered criticisms from overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) and their families; for them, balikbayan boxes serve as a symbol of modern day heroes’ sweat and tears, manifested in giving something to their loved ones back home.
But the BOC policy was never about desecrating the value of the cherished boxes.
“We have all the purity of purpose. One is to implement the law,” Lina told the Asian Journal in an exclusive interview.
The agency monitors all items that enter the borders of the country. Among its major responsibilities include: assessing and collecting lawful revenues from imported articles, as well as all other fees, fines and penalties accruing under the tariff and customs laws; preventing and suppressing smuggling and other frauds; and enforcing tariff and customs laws relating to the tariff and customs administration.
It is also tasked with supervising and handling foreign mail that arrives in the Philippines, to collect lawful duties on dutiable articles thus imported and to prevent smuggling through the medium of such mail.
In his role as BOC head, Lina said he is only executing the functions of the bureau as mandated by the law.
“At nakita natin talaga yung surge na ginagamit ang balikbayan boxes para sa regulated drugs and firearms. (We really see the surge in the use of balikbayan boxes for regulated drugs and firearms.) It’s very alarming,” he said.
Prior to the announcement of the random inspection policy on balikbayan boxes, the agency conducted a random search of container vans in some warehouses. Lina ordered the opening of three to four of 1,500 containers in the facility. From the inspection, BOC officials found out various appliances and items — such as refrigerators and televisions, used clothing, and even motorcycles — all hidden behind balikbayan boxes.
Based on the BOC’s estimate, it appears that P250 million to P416 million are lost monthly through smuggling using balikbayan boxes. Figures estimate that the government loses P3 billion to P6 billion every year due to smuggling through balikbayan boxes.
Last September, the agency seized 402 allegedly undeclared balikbayan boxes filled with assorted goods from Singapore worth over P1.7 million. The consolidator only declared 133 packages of household goods and personal effects, but failed to declare the other 402.
From the undeclared boxes, 380 contained pre-mixed flour and pork floss reportedly consigned to popular Singaporean brand BreadTalk; seven boxes contained ball casters reportedly consigned to Seek and Find Instaparts Corp.; seven boxes, each with 200 Quebee protective eyewear, reportedly consigned to Basic Occupational; and five boxes with 144 pairs of Worksafe protective eyewear, reportedly consigned to Worksafe.
“But at the end of the day, hindi naman kayo [balikbayan]. Actually, yung mga smugglers who are using the balikbayan mode ang aking tinitingnan (But at the end of the day, it’s not the OFWs. I’m actually looking after the smugglers who are using the balikbayan mode),” he said.
A channel of peace and order
Along with smuggling issues, the random inspection policy has caused some uproar. And as a result, the Customs Modernization and Tariff Act (CMTA), which was pending for almost seven years, has been revived.
The act will introduce reforms to the BOC, including raising the tax exemption for tax and duty-free items and goods sent home by OFWs to their loved ones from overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) from the present P10,000 to P150,000. The term ‘balikbayan box’ has also been redefined to its original concept as a package brought to the country by Filipinos who are returning home.
A real patriot
Dura lex, sed lex— the law is harsh, but it is the law. It shouldn’t be difficult to follow if one is not violating any law. In a statement issued by the Malacañang at the height of the balikbayan box issue, “There will be no random or arbitrary physical inspection of balikbayan boxes. Moving forward, all containers of balikbayan boxes should undergo mandatory X-ray and K-9 examination – at no cost to the sender or the OFW.”
Before Lina leaves his post, he has a gift for Filipinos, especially balikbayans. Along with the enactment of the CMTA, the BOC will launch a mobile application called Electronic 2 Mobile Customs. Aside from a comprehensive FAQ sheet, the BOC’s m-commerce set-up promises appropriate service-products attainable using a full end-to-end clearance process that includes (a) text broadcast, wherein BOC sends e-mail message to the brokers, importers of the arrival of their shipments, potential problem and requirements; (b) online payment through M-Payment; (c) E-Lodgment/E-Payment/E-OLRS, a web-enabled clearance process for the Air Express Cargo clients; (d) mobile-release instruction for importers and brokers; and (e) e2m CUSTOMS SYSTEM.
Through Internet-based and wireless technologies, the application will streamline imports and exports processing and improve trade facilitation among the BOC, other government agencies and its stakeholders anywhere, anytime—all toward the realization of the National and ASEAN Single Windows
Lina has eight months remaining at the BOC, and his mission continues to stand: guard the country while providing the paramount services for the welfare of the Filipinos.
“Ginagawa ko ang trabaho ko kesa I’ll be sorry for the rest of my life na hindi ko ginawa yung trabaho ko (I’m doing my job rather than I’ll be sorry for the rest of my life that I didn’t do my job),” he said.