President Rodrigo Duterte plucked Commissioner Isidro Lapeña out of the Bureau of Customs and appointed him to head the Technical Education and Skills Development Authority even as his leadership is in question over the illegal drug shipment worth P11 billion that slipped into the country.
Lapeña’s promotion to Cabinet rank is the latest in Duterte’s record of reappointing officials he still trusts despite ongoing investigations into corruption in the bureau he led.
He was neither dismissed nor he was reported to have resigned unlike other officials whom Duterte promoted.
MARINA administrator Rey Guerrero, a former military man, will take Lapeña’s place at the Customs bureau.
These developments came after the Customs commissioner admitted the possibility of a huge shipment of methamphetamine hydrochloride or shabu slipping past the bureau under his watch.
The Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency intercepted empty magnetic lifters last August. Lapeña initially denied that the lifters contained shabu, or crystallized meth, despite early findings.
Reshuffling of officials
Duterte made the announcements at the 117th anniversary of the Philippine Coast Guard on October 25. On October 28, the president again expressed his confidence that Lapeña did not a have a hand in the illegal importation.
“The illegal drugs slipped past them because they could not overturn the system. There were insiders involved and they were eaten up by the system,” Duterte said.
He argued that Lapeña’s background as a former law enforcer would help him in his new job.
Lapeña was a former PDEA chief before he was picked to lead the Customs bureau in 2017. This makes it his third re-appointment in Duterte’s administration.
Guerrero’s transfer, meanwhile, will be the second in a year. He was the former chief of the Armed Forces of the Philippines.
“I will promote you to a Cabinet member position. General… Guerrero, you are to move to the Bureau of Customs,” Duterte said.
Critics were quick to denounce the move, recalling the president’s double standards with his allies tagged in possible graft.
Former BoC Commissioner Isidro Lapeña, under whose watch P6.8B worth of shabu slipped past Customs, was promoted by Duterte to TESDA Chief, while all BoC execs fired?!
So, Duterte's strategy is to promote those who fail to protect PH from drugs?!
WAR ON DRUGS MY FOOT! pic.twitter.com/pHQXx0UsEP
— Francis Baraan IV (@MrFrankBaraan) October 25, 2018
A satiric poster advertisement of TESDA at the helm of Lapena also circulated online.
Gusto mo ba ng high na high na income? Mag-enroll na sa bagong courses ng TESDA! pic.twitter.com/Xc16u47kf8
— Malacañang Events and Catering Services (@MalacananEvents) October 25, 2018
The removal of a BOC chief over allegations on smuggling illegal drugs will also be the second time in Duterte’s administration.
In 2017, Nicanor Faeldon, a former soldier, stepped down after being tagged to the entry of P6.4 billion of shabu in Valenzuela City. Lapeña was the one who replaced him.
Faeldon is currently the deputy administrator III of the Office of the Civil Defense. He was appointed last week as the new director of the Bureau of Corrections, replacing Ronald dela Rosa who filed for his senate candidacy. Dela Rosa is the former PNP chief who led the initial years of the brutal war on drugs.
Shipment of illegal drugs
Last July, PDEA gathered intelligence reports of shabu weighing at least 1,000 kilograms being shipped into the country. This was supposedly concealed inside four magnetic scrap lifters.
However, the containers were already empty when anti-narcotics agents found them in a warehouse in the municipality of General Mariano Alvarez, Cavite.
PDEA Director General Aaron Aquino initially calculated the lifters to carry P6.8 billion worth of illegal drugs. The anti-drug agency later estimated it to be at least P11 billion.
On August 7, PDEA and BOC told reporters that they recovered 500 kilograms of shabu but in another set of magnetic lifters.
Lapeña back then insisted that the four containers with missing shabu packages were empty from the beginning.
He also denied allegations that illegal drugs were peddled into the country and got past his bureau under his watch.
A former Customs official, however, countered this at the Senate blue ribbon committee hearing in October.
Ma. Lourdes Mangaoang, a lawyer, claimed that Lapeña knew the lifters were not empty as he was aware of the findings of the bureau’s internal investigation.
“(Lapeña) knew that the magnetic lifters had something inside because I gave him (a) copy of the x-ray image. I told him that the image clearly showed that the lifters were not empty as claimed by his men,” said Mangaoang, a former x-ray division chief.
Lapeña, however, claimed that such allegations were part of a P20-million demolition job to remove him from office.
The next day, he backtracked on his denials and said that he now perceives it possible for the lifters to have been used to ship illegal drugs into the country.
“When the four magnetic lifters found in Cavite were opened, they were empty. But with what is going on now, with all these pieces of evidence, I now tend to believe that those lifters had contents that are now being peddled by drug syndicates,” Lapeña said.