By Wilnard Bacelonia and Leonel Abasola

SMUGGLED. Agents of the Customs Intelligence and Investigation Service-Manila International Container Port intercept PHP171-million worth of smuggled agricultural products, including fresh red and white onions and carrots, from China, in this undated photo. The Senate is eyeing the creation of the Anti-Agricultural Smuggling Task Force and Anti-Agricultural Smuggling Court to act as watchdogs against illegal activities. (Courtesy of BOC) 

MANILA – A dedicated task force and a special anti-agricultural smuggling court will be good instruments to bring smugglers, profiteers and hoarders to justice, according to Senator Cynthia Villar.

Villar said on Monday a special court could be created to specifically try and hear economic sabotage cases with a Special Team of Prosecutors to assist the task force in the expeditious prosecution of violators.

“It is high-time that we have an Anti-Agricultural Smuggling Task Force and Anti-Agricultural Smuggling Court. With these in place, we will have a watchdog in the agricultural sector to ensure that whoever manipulates the price of agricultural commodities to the detriment of the small farmers and consumers, will be brought to justice accordingly,” she said in a statement.

“Gone are the days when we are always at the mercy of these cartels,” she added.

Villar’s Senate Committee on Agriculture, Food and Agrarian Reform recently released the Committee Report No. 25 on the soaring market prices of onions and recommended transformative measures to combat agricultural smuggling in the country.

During its recent hearing, it was revealed to the committee that onions being sold in the market at PHP700-PHP750 per kilo were bought from the farmers of Occidental Mindoro at a shocking price of PHP8-PHP15 per kilo during the harvest season.

Villar believes that this is a clear scenario of price manipulation wherein hoarders store onion supplies in the cold storage to create a shortage so that its price would go up.

The Committee also recommended to amend Republic Act (RA) No. 10845 or the Anti-Agricultural Smuggling Act of 2016 to include profiteering, hoarding, and engaging in cartel in addition to smuggling in its list of crimes involving economic sabotage.

“I will make the amendment to the Anti-Agricultural Smuggling Act to be explicit and very specific so that there will be no room for the implementors to interpret the intent and spirit of the law through the Implementing Rules and Regulations. We will include hoarding, profiteering, and engaging in cartel, as forms of economic sabotage, and we will also increase the penalty under this law,” Villar said.

The lamaker also reiterated the need to digitalize the customs transaction through the implementation of the National Single Window as provided for in the Anti-Agricultural Smuggling Act.

Senator JV Ejercito’s Senate Bill No. 1688, which seeks to amend RA 10845, will form the Inter-Agency Council on Economic Intelligence to prosecute smugglers, to be composed of the Bureau of Customs (BOC), Department of Justice, National Bureau of Investigation, Department of Agriculture, Department of the Interior and Local Government, Philippine National Police, Philippine Competition Commission, National Security Council and National Intelligence Coordinating Agency. 

The measure will consider as economic sabotage the hoarding, profiteering and cartel of sugar, corn, pork, poultry, garlic, onion, carrots, fish and vegetables worth at least PHP1 million or rice worth at least PHP10 million.

Ejercito is also counting on new BOC chief Bienvenido Rubio to prioritize the campaign in anti-agricultural smuggling and stop the possible collusion among its employees and smugglers.

Malacañang announced Rubio’s appointment on Friday.

Prior to his new stint, Rubio served as director of BOC’s Port Operations Service under the Assessment and Operations Coordinating Group.

“I hope Commissioner Rubio will be able to guard our ports effectively against agricultural smuggling,” Estrada said in a radio interview on Monday. (PNA)