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Mainstreaming national security into the country’s border control processes

PORTFOLIO
By Ramon G. Cuyco

“In an age when terrorists move information at the speed of an email, money at the speed of a wire transfer, and people at the speed of a commercial jetliner, the Defense Department (DOD) is bogged down in the micromanagement and bureaucratic processes of the industrial age, not the information age. Some of our difficulties are self-imposed, while others are the result of law and regulation. Together they have created a culture that too often stifles innovation, and results in the United States fighting the first wars of the twenty-first century with a Defense Department that was fashioned to meet the challenges of the mid-twentieth century. We have an industrial age organization, yet we are living in an information age world, where new threats emerge suddenly, often without warning, to surprise us. We cannot afford not to change rapidly, if we hope to live in that world.”

The foregoing quote from US Secretary Donald Rumsfield a decade ago, may well be said of the Philippine government’s border control processes, namely: customs, immigration, quarantine, and security (CIQS).

Of the CIQS agencies, the Philippines’ Customs bureau whose mindset remains a captive of the obsolescence of past decades despite the many global changes that have been taking place in breakneck speed or dizzying pace, deserves to be examined more closely in the light of the policy anchors of the Duterte Administration—a drug-free, graft-free, and terror-free Philippines; with emphasis on the proposed Federal Philippines.

The Bureau of Customs (BOC), structured under a Presidential Decree No. 1464, otherwise known as the Tariff and Customs Code of the Philippines (TCCP), was principally focused on raising revenues; and, incident thereto, the suppression of smuggling and other forms of frauds on customs. This TCCP was promulgated by a decree that was issued way back in 1978, at a time when the country need not unnecessarily worry about external threats and terroristic engagements as it then enjoyed the protective custodianship of the United States of America (USA), courtesy of its Subic military base in Zambales province, as well as its Clark air base in Angeles, Pampanga.

After almost 40 years under the TCCP, the Philippine Congress deemed it best to reboot, retrofit, and retool the Customs agency. Thus, Republic Act No. 10863, otherwise known as the Customs Modernization and Tariff Act (CMTA), was enacted into law on May 30, 2016, one of the many laws that saw the light of day only during the twilight days of the Aquino administration. This law expressly repealed the provisions of the TCCP.

With the country’s accession to the Revised Kyoto Convention (RKC) in June 2010, the CMTA was understandably patterned after the provisions of that Convention and its protocols, aimed “to ensure that the country’s customs systems and procedures conform with international standards, enabling stakeholders to transact efficiently with the Bureau of Customs, and to comply with the country’s commitment as contracting party to the RKC.”

Unfortunately, of the 18 Titles, 43 Chapters, and 314 Sections of the CMTA, very scant, if at all, is said about strengthening or enhancing the country’s capability to advance the interest of national security in the country’s borders.

The law’s declared policy is instructive when it said: “It is hereby declared the policy of the State to protect and enhance government revenue, institute fair and transparent customs and tariff management that will efficiently facilitate international trade, prevent and curtail any form of customs fraud and illegal acts, and modernize customs and tariff administration.”

More specifically, the declaration emphasized that, “[t]owards this end, the State shall:

  • (a) Develop and implement programs for the continuous enhancement of customs systems and processes that will harmonize customs procedures;
  • (b) Adopt clear and transparent customs rules, regulations, policies and procedures consistent with international standards and customs best practices;
  • (c) Establish a regime of transparency and accessibility to customs information, customs laws, rules, regulations, administrative policies, procedures and practices, in order to ensure informed and diligent compliance with customs practices and procedures by stakeholders;
  • (d) Consult, coordinate, and cooperate with other government agencies and the private sector in implementing and developing customs policy;
  • (e) Provide a fair and expeditious administrative and judicial appellate remedy for customs related grievances and matters;
  • (f) Employ modern practices in custom administration and utilize information and communications technology in the implementation of customs functions; and
  • (g) Institute professionalism and meritocracy customs tax administration by attracting and retaining competent and capable customs officers and personnel to enforce the provisions of this Act.

Rodelio T. Dascil, Esq., the Director General of the Senate Tax Study and Research Office (STSRO) at the Philippine Senate, enumerates what he calls the “environmental factors that justify the passage of the CMTA,” namely:

  1. The establishment of the World Trade Organization (WTO) and regional trading arrangements such as APEC and AFTA;
  2. Reduced tariff barriers through the WTO;
  3. Increased globalization of trade;
  4. Rapid growth in international cargo;
  5. A highly competitive international business environment;
  6. Removal of many non-tariff barriers;
  7. Growth in e-commerce; and
  8. Increased focus on trade security.”

Trade Facilitation and Competitiveness—Impacts on National Security

The declaration of state policy unequivocally manifested its bias—trade facilitation under the aegis of the World Trade Organization.

The CMTA as presented, has, in some degrees, ignored some of the basic ideological principles that underlie the Constitution. More specifically, the fundamental law decrees that it is “[t]he prime duty of the Government is to serve and protect the people.” (Section 4) And, “[t]he maintenance of peace and order, the protection of life, liberty, and property, and the promotion of the general welfare, are essential for the enjoyment by all the people of the blessing of democracy.” (Section 5)

Admittedly, the Philippines cannot afford to miss the fruits of globalization which is free trade. She cannot afford to operate in isolation from other economies, or from her Asian neighbors. She has to compete with them; hence, the need to be competitive to maximize gains. She has to reboot the customs operating system, retrofit its organizational structures, and retool its personnel and leaders alike.

Indeed, business and industry leaders in the country, as well as those of the country’s neighbors in the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) have invariably noticed the Philippines’ inadequacy in terms of competitiveness. She has to level up and upgrade.

Why competitiveness?

“Competition makes markets perform better and promotes inclusive economic growth. It induces producers to reduce costs, innovate and widen the range of goods and services available to consumers. It allows a level playing field where small entrepreneurs and firms, besides larger players, may operate and grow.

In the process, competition raises productivity, expands economic opportunities, increases people’s real incomes, and improves overall welfare. Competition especially benefits the poor through job creation made possible by the entry, growth, and expansion of efficient firms; and through lower prices that result from greater variety and higher quality of goods and services.

“Market competition does not operate in a vacuum. Its beneficial results depend on the prevailing environment. Experience has shown that competition may also lead to sub-optimal results, especially in cases where private and social interests diverge. When competition intensifies, in the short term, less efficient firms are forced out of the industry, or firms may resort to anti-competitive or deceitful conduct. Socially beneficial competition is also hindered when sellers can exploit consumers’ imperfect information and human frailties.

“On the other hand, socially beneficial competition ensues when the right incentives are generated ‘for firms to improve their economic performance vis-à-vis their actual and potential rivals; and in so doing, deliver the best outcomes for their consumers and society as a whole.’ Such is the basic rationale for a competition policy.”

Indeed, competition is inevitable, and competitiveness is a must. But, in pursuit of high global competition, shall national security be placed to the sidelines?

“The world is a global village where economic activities are significantly, interconnected, interlinked, and interdependent. Under this setting, a changing and complex risk landscape and the relatively fast transmission of shocks that can easily cascade on a wide scale accentuate the vulnerability of individual and regional economies, and the global economy, in general. Pandemics, energy, price volatility, rising food prices, financial crises, interstate conflicts, and failure of climate change mitigation and adaptation measures, among others, figure prominently in present-day conversations of the policy community.”

The Imperatives of Mainstreaming National Security

The crafting of the CMTA would have been a very opportune time to mainstream the imperatives of national security into the country’s customs processes. Unfortunately, Congress failed to see the need. Probably, most of the legislators still labor under the belief that development and economic progress are the only sine qua nons that will ultimately solve the problems of terrorism.

This may sound good and populist; but should the risks and vulnerabilities to national security be ignored in favor of global competitiveness?

Let’s listen to an expert.

In his book, WHAT THE TERRORISTS WANT (Understanding the terrorists threat), Louise Robinsons, a recognized authority on the subject, documented various testimonies of some ‘practitioners of the senseless pursuit’ showing that economics and developments are not necessarily the drivers of terroristic engagements, especially those relentlessly pursued by religious extremists or fundamentalists. Robinsons made this assertion: “What appears to drive some people to violence is not their absolute levels of poverty but rather their position relative to others.”

Thus, he explained: “The few academic investigations of the links between terrorism and poverty have concluded that they are, at best, indirect.” He wrote: “One of the most popular explanations for terrorism is poverty and inequality – that people are driven to terrorism by economic deprivation, and that therefore, the best response is to improve economic condition in affected regions. Again this is not entirely true. If there were a direct link between poverty, inequality and terrorism, the areas with the highest rates of poverty and inequality would have the highest rates of terrorism, but they do not. If there were a direct link between poverty and terrorism, Africa, the poorest continent on the planet, would be awash in terrorism. It is not. If terrorism was caused by inequality, countries in Africa and Latin America with the highest rates of inequality would have the highest rates of terrorism, but they do not.”

Indeed, terrorists have different motivations, different orientations; and, they may have varying modalities of operation.

The ideological terrorists may be of a different cut—it may be argued that they are the kind that anchors terroristic adventures on political and social factors, including among others poverty and other economic deprivations.

Nonetheless, it would be puerile for defense and security officials of any nation, any continent, or political divide not to proactively position its capabilities against the various modes of attack by terror networks.

”While terrorism can and does occur in both rich and poor countries, it is more likely to occur in developing countries and especially in countries experiencing rapid modernization. Changing economic conditions are conducive to instability, and traditional means of making sense of the world, like religion or local power structures, are challenged by the scale of the change.”

That said, and with the Philippines becoming one of the fastest growing economies in the whole world, her attractiveness to terrorists’ mal-adventures will heighten the country’s risk vulnerability index. Thus, the leaders and every Filipino need to mainstream national security into every government program and process.

The call of President Rodrigo Roa Duterte in his 2017 State of the Nation Address (SONA) for Congress to speed up the deliberation of the bill on Rightsizing The Bureaucracy may, therefore, be an appropriate avenue to integrate into the final output of the measure, some clear and specific prescriptions that will mainstream the exacting demands of national security into the various processes of the CIQS agencies.

What is national security?

The 2017-22 National Security Policy (NSP) defines national security as “a state or condition wherein the people’s welfare, well-being, ways of life; government and its institutions; territorial integrity; sovereignty; and core values are enhanced and protected.”

The NSP posits that “the concept of national security has changed, evolved, and expanded in immense ways over time. No longer does it exclusively refer to the traditional notions of internal and external defense, but now also encompasses virtually every aspect of national life and nation-building.”

Further, the NSP advances the posture that “national security is anchored on three major pillars.”

The first pillar “is safeguarding the Philippines’ national unity, its democracy and its social institutions. The most important foundation of national unity is that all citizens share one national identity; that is, being Filipinos regardless of their ethnic, religious, cultural and ideological orientations.”

The second pillar is “ensuring the security of the State and preserving and protecting its sovereignty, territorial integrity, and institutions,” as spelled out in the various provisions of the Constitution.

And the third pillar is – “the protection of properties, infrastructure and keeping the people safe from all forms of threats, both here and abroad, and to the extent possible, create jobs in order to bring back home overseas Filipino workers where their physical safety can be fully guaranteed by our Government.”

And, why national security?

“National security and public order are essential elements in building the foundation for inclusive growth, a high trust and resilient society and a globally competitive knowledge economy. People feel safe wherever they are in the country and are able to go about their business, economic or social pursuits as long as they do not violate other people’s economic, social, and cultural rights. Such a condition enables the free flow of goods and services,” states the 2017-2022 Philippine Development Plan (PDP).

“Economic growth cannot be sufficiently buoyant, sustained, nor inclusive without durable and enduring peace.” Thus, “the government must upgrade the capability of law enforcers to drastically reduce criminality and terrorism and to ensure the safety and security of all people in the country.”

In his 2nd State of the Nation Address (SONA), President Duterte said that the war on drugs shall be unrelenting. And, “[t]he problem on illegal drugs needs a holistic approach. The use of illegal drugs is prevalent in the country with around four million drug users and 47 percent of barangays throughout the country being drug-affected (PDEA, 2016). Three illegal transnational drug groups of African, Chinese, and Mexican Sinaloa origin are operating in the country and have greatly aggravated the drug problem.”

The country’s “growing illegal drugs problem in particular needs a determined and proactive solution. Successive researches and pertinent crime statistics in the Philippines show a strong and direct correlation between crimes, especially serious or violent ones, and drug abuse. Any serious campaign to fight crime should therefore also involve a resolute crusade to stamp out drug abuse. This is a tough challenge.”

The Philippines may either be an origin, a transit point, a destination, or a combination thereof. Her intelligence community states that the country is all of the above—origin-transit-destination. And because we are archipelagic, ingress and egress of illicit drugs are coursed through her ports and airports. This is where her vulnerabilities are most felt.

Customs Enforcement

Who is going to watch aircrafts and seacrafts is a task reposed on the CIQS agencies—the BOC, the BI, and the BOQ; together they constitute what is called as “the boarding party.”

Unfortunately, the unmolested entry of the Php6.4 billion worth of illegal drugs last May 26, 2017, among the many that were allegedly undetected, puts serious doubts on the capability of the country’s border control management.

Quizzed by the Philippine Senate last 31 July 2017, Customs chief Nicanor Faeldon, admitted that “[t]he flow of illegal drugs through the country’s seaports could not be contained as the current X-ray system of the Bureau of Customs (BOC) is only capable of handling only 16 percent of all imports arriving in the country through the Manila International Container Port (MICP).”

Faeldon told the Senate Blue Ribbon Committee probers that “the chance of shabu being smuggled into the country is 84 percent with the limitation of the X-ray system.” As if to stress the helplessness of the country’s border controls, Faeldon “warned senators that another 500 kilos of shabu are expected to be unloaded in the Philippines ‘that we cannot detect.’”

If manifestly anti-social goods could be entered into the customs territory undetected, or even if detected, they are unmolested, how convenient would it be for shipments that would not incite suspicions due to their regular appearance or packaging, say, boxes of illegal drugs packaged as fake grapes mixed with boxes of real grapes stuffed into a container of imported fruits?

Or, anti-social goods coursed through “green lane” of the customs risk management system? Or, even through the “super green lane” or what is now known as the “blue lane” of its selectivity screens? That the latter is accessible and available only to some 200 pre-registered top corporations is no guarantee that anti-social goods—drugs, firearms, or other weapons of mass destructions – may pass through this “free way” of sort.

And, one can let his imaginations go wild?

As has already happened, or is still happening, the country is a sitting duck!

Immigration

On migration control management, the security screening capability is not impregnable either.

The country’s doorman—the Bureau of Immigration—has been reported to have been “intensifying efforts to erase the Philippines’ image as a sex tourism hotspot by aggressively going after foreign pedophiles and convicted sex offenders attempting to enter the country… since January last year, 312 sex offenders have been refused entry at the Ninoy Aquino International Airport (NAIA) and other ports of entry nationwide, which means that the immigration officers at the country’s airports have been turning back an average of 18 foreign pedophiles every month, or one sex offender every two days.”

Down south in Mindanao, where the country shares borders with its ASEAN neighbors, whose nationals oftentimes look more Filipino than many Filipinos, the Philippines vulnerability is so high.

There was a time when at any given time some 200,000 Indonesians reportedly entered the Philippines’ backdoors without visa and other similar entry documents. Conversely, thousands upon thousands of Filipinos sail to Borneo or Malaysia without legal travel documents. And they come back and go forth; often without notice, clearance, or protestation from immigration officials. That they trade freely – or, untaxed – is recognized to have predated the Philippine Republic is not what is alarming; their capacity to bring in or out anti-social goods is what must send shivers down the spines of the country’s defense and security officials.

In one of the Senate sessions, top officials of the Immigration bureau were asked by Senator Juan Ponce Enrile: Can anyone from the BI tell me how many aliens do we have in the country today? And, of those numbers, how many are overstaying? No one was able to answer. During that time, the BI was already having its processes computerized.

With what has confronted the BI of late, one can argue that nothing has changed dramatically. If there is, it could be in the area of corruption where its key officers were reportedly caught ‘extorting’ millions from a foreigner that has been bringing in thousands of “undocumented or inappropriately documented” aliens working in the casinos somewhere in Central Luzon.

In a sense, corruption corrodes even the country’s migration security controls. And because these aliens are “undocumented or inappropriately documented”– whose faces could hardly be identified, where they are currently residing no one monitors, and what they are actually doing right now no one can tell – how then can it be said that this Republic is safe?

The Siege of Marawi is Exhibit A of the country’s vulnerability, both in its customs and immigration border control capabilities.

Health Surveillance

The country’s quarantine services are fractious—there are health quarantine, crops quarantine, and livestock quarantine services – all aimed at distinct purposes – albeit, sharing the same goal—to shield the country and its people from the entry of health hazards.

In this day and age where viral and touch-based infections are susceptible of manipulation by criminal minds, the country’s CIQS are still operating under the protocols of the past decades, with tools so crude and rusty, and organization so emaciated by natural attrition, and with a mindset that is so hackneyed that it would rather facilitate entry rather than shut the door to keep the nation safe from toxins and other health hazards.

For, how shall the eggs that breeders import be verified as to the legitimacy of its importation purpose —what if inferior eggs were imported so that the country’s poultry eggs be purposively destroyed, when the poultry industry should have been improving the poultry’s quality?

Or, who can say that a pet is not injected with virus that becomes manifest only after 30 or 60 days from its entry into the Philippine market, or a month after it has been ushered into the bedroom of pet lovers?

Or, who can say that palms from tropical paradise islands, or orchid from ASEAN neighbors, or tulips from faraway Europe were not entered into the Philippine territory to cause plants or crops infestations and inflect human health havoc of unimaginable magnitude?

Again, one’s imagination could go wild: And, again, the Philippines is a sitting duck!

Security Unsecured

Unfortunately, the Philippines is a country of people appearing so unconcerned about its own security. Like her leaders’ attitude on transport safety, wherein they go helter-skelter whenever transport accident happens and is predictably followed by probes, press statements, and depending on the magnitude of the accident in terms of carnage, a congressional inquiry; and when the dust has settled and the smoke has cleared, nothing has changed for the better—not even in drawing lessons from the painful tragedy.

The nation’s security obviously is unsecured.

Some three of more years ago, Republic Act No. 10697, otherwise known as the Strategic Trade Management Act (STMA) became a law. Under it provisions, a permanent committee under the National Security Council (NSC) known as the NSC-Strategic Trade Management Committee was constituted. It is tasked as “the central authority on any and all matters relating to strategic trade management” where most departments are mandated members.

To highlight the body’s security implications, it was made an adjunct of the country’s highest security body—the National Security Council which is presided by the Chief Executive himself.

To date, however, very few security-related activities can be attributed to have been birthed by this critical body when it was aimed at addressing concerns relative to weapons of mass destruction.

Again, if the Siege of Marawi is to be the backdrop, it is not unlikely that the country and all its inhabitants are going to be virtual sitting ducks many times over, until they seriously mainstream the imperatives of national security and its various permutations into government programs and processes.

Louise Robinsons emphasizes that “[t]rying to understand is not simply the self-indulgence of the academic, it is also essential for policy.”

And, quoting Joseph Stycos, Robinsons stresses: “If theory without policy is for the academics, then policy without theory is for the gamblers.”

Need it be stated emphatically?

National security must be mainstreamed in all government agencies’ programs and processes; and all Filipinos – leaders and ordinary citizens alike – must be ultra-watchful of their safety and security. Effective national security programs must be pursued NOW.

About Atty. Ramon Cuyco

Ramon G. Cuyco, Esq., CESO (inactive), former Regional Director, LTO; former DOTC Spokesperson; former Customs Director, former Head, Competitive Planning and Management Staff of the Bureau of Immigration. Currently, a Project-based Consultant at the Development Academy of the Philippines.

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