By Jose Cielito Reganit and Ruth Abbey Gita-Carlos

Smuggled onions (File photo)

MANILA – Acknowledging the detrimental impact of onion smuggling on the country’s agricultural industry, President Ferdinand R. Marcos Jr. on Wednesday vowed to go after smugglers and hoarders, saying their days are numbered.

Marcos said he is hoping for the immediate conclusion of the Department of Justice (DOJ) and the National Bureau of Investigation’s (NBI) investigation into the supposed efforts of a cartel to manipulate the prices of agricultural commodities, including onions.

“Marami talagang sindikato na nago-operate pa para habulin na natin, matigil ‘yung kanilang ginagawa (There are many syndicates that are really operating and we have to go after them to stop what they are doing),” he said in a media interview on the sidelines of the Livestock and Aquaculture Philippines 2023 at the World Trade Center in Pasay City.

He said the unlawful activity is tantamount to economic sabotage.

“Hindi maaari nilang ituloy ‘yung kanilang ginagawa. Tama na ‘yan at titigilin na natin ‘yung kanilang masasayang ginagawa dati (Their activities must stop. We will stop them from doing such activities),” he added.

Marcos said he did not impose a deadline on the DOJ and NBI’s investigation but stressed that they must come up with a well-established finding.

The DOJ said it would collaborate with other government agencies, including the Bureau of Customs (BOC), the Department of Agriculture (DA), and other agencies to address the issue.

The department’s investigation encompasses violations of Republic Act 10845 or the Anti-Agricultural Smuggling Act of 2016 which specifically targets the illegal importation of agricultural products, including onions.

Decisive action

Speaker Ferdinand Martin G. Romualdez said the President’s directive showed his firm determination to stamp out cartels behind food price manipulation

“This is a welcome development, a decisive action that manifests the President’s resolve to clamp down on unscrupulous businessmen preying on hapless Filipino consumers and hampering his administration’s efforts to sustain the robust growth of our economy,” Romualdez said in a statement on Wednesday.

“The President’s directive should be enough to deter further supply manipulation of agricultural products and help stabilize prices, especially amid reports that prices of onion are on the rise again,” he added.

According to Malacañang, the President’s directive was based on a memorandum submitted by Marikina Rep. Stella Quimbo indicating substantial evidence pointing to the existence of an onion cartel which could be behind the surge in onion prices in 2022.

Last May, during a hearing of the House Committee on Agriculture and Food chaired by Quezon 1st District Rep. Wilfrido Mark Enverga, Quimbo tagged Lillia or Leah Cruz, and her family-controlled firm at the center of the alleged onion cartel.

According to Quimbo, the cartel which operates through a group of companies, was engaged in various activities in the supply chain such as farming, importation, local trading, warehousing and logistics.

It was Romualdez who called for a congressional probe on onion smuggling after the prices of the agricultural product hit a record high of PHP700 per kilo in December last year.

For his part, Cavite 4th District Rep. Elpidio Barzaga Jr. said the President’s order for the DOJ and the NBI to launch an investigation showed that Marcos had been following the hearings, and that he recognizes the huge role it played in helping dismantle the biggest onion cartel in the country to restore the prices of agricultural products to its previous level.

“It only shows the Chief Executive’s seriousness in protecting the welfare of the public, especially ordinary people — consumers and the farmers who till the land to ensure that we’ll all have food to eat,” Barzaga said in a separate statement.

In the meantime, Romualdez said the House of Representatives is ready to provide authorities with the data uncovered from the committee hearings “to provide them a head start” in their own investigation.

Romualdez also assured President Marcos and the nation that the House would remain vigilant against price fixing by monitoring the prices of onion, rice, and other vital commodities and services to protect the interest of consumers.

“We will continue to monitor prices, especially of basic staples like rice, vegetables, meat, onions, and garlic, to protect our people from hoarding, price manipulation, unreasonable price increases, and other practices in restraint of trade and which hamper competition,” he said.

“That is part of our oversight function. We have the appropriate tools to carry this out, including conducting follow-up hearings and summoning suspected hoarders, smugglers and cartel leaders if needed. We will not shirk from our duty to help our people,” he added. (PNA)