Customs fixer now clears Duterte kin of involvement in smuggling, 'tara' system

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Updated on September 2 to reflect a statement from Malacañang

Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, September 1) — A "fixer" who is central to Congress's investigation into the smuggling of P6.4-billion (US$125 million) worth of shabu from China cleared President Rodrigo Duterte's son and son-in-law on Friday of any involvement in smuggling operations.

"I am making this statement to clear Vice Mayor Paolo Duterte and Attorney Manse Carpio from any involvement in the shipment of illegal drugs into the country, and any anomalies in the Bureau of Customs (BOC)," Mark Taguba said in a press statement released by his legal counsel, Attorney Raymond Fortun.

Taguba said, "I had never testified, nor will I ever testify that Vice Mayor Paolo Duterte and/or Attorney Manse Carpio were involved in the shipment of illegal drugs into the country."

"Neither have I testified, nor will I ever testify that the aforementioned individuals were involved in the 'tara system' that was in place at the Bureau of Customs," he added.

The names of the two members of the presidential family "were merely mentioned" by the "Davao Group" in a string of text messages between himself and two other alleged fixers he identified by the aliases of "Tita Nannie" and "Jack."

The text messages were revealed by Taguba to the Senate Blue Ribbon Committee.

Duterte and Carpio's involvement in smuggling and corruption are "hearsay in nature," Taguba said.

Taguba issued the clarification a day after the senate hearing where tempers among the investigating panel of senators flared over Taguba's statements to the committee, in which he implicated the Duterte family members in the smuggling operations.

Also read: Gordon to file ethics complaint vs. Trillanes after clash at Senate

Senator Antonio Trillanes had asked him if he believed Duterte and Carpio were behind the so-called "Davao Group."

To which Taguba replied, "Yes, your honor."

The 26-year-old, Australian-educated Taguba apologized to the President's family in his statement.

"I also hereby apologize to Vice Mayor Duterte, Atty. Carpio and to the first family for the proliferation of fake news arising out of my testimony at the Senate yesterday," he said.

Malacañang: No need for Duterte, Carpio to attend hearing

Malacañang on Saturday said the Senate Blue Ribbon Committee should no longer summon Duterte and Carpio following Taguba's "retraction."

"There may be no reason for the senate investigative panel to call the two individuals to attend any hearing in Metro Manila, although they have indicated willingness to testify," Presidential Spokesperson Ernesto Abella said in a statement.

During Thursday's hearing, Senator Antonio Trillanes moved for the committee to invite Duterte and Carpio to the next hearing on Sept. 5. No senator objected to his motion.

Trillanes on Friday said Taguba was "pressured" to change his statements.

"Therefore, Mr. Taguba's clarification doesn't change anything, Vice Mayor Paolo Duterte and Atty. Mans Carpio should still appear before the Blue Ribbon Committee," he said.

Customs mess

Taguba also used the statement to deny once again his involvement in the smuggling of the shabu from China, which is considered the the biggest smuggled shipment of illegal drugs in the Philippines' history.

"To this day, I contest that the container that my company caused to be released on May 24, 2016 contained the 605 kilograms of shabu," he said, reiterating that only household items were the contents.

The shabu was discovered by authorities in plastic bags inside five huge cylinders used in printing presses.

Taguba's testimony at the Senate hearing, which has been ongoing since July, has also led to a bigger expose of the entrenched system of corruption prevailing at the BOC.

He named Customs officials and individuals with aliases he has allegedly been paying off to ease the release of his other shipments. The controversy has led to the resignation and replacement of the country's customs commissioner and other customs officials.

Taguba has said he pays up to P27,000 per container as grease money for customs officials. Senate Blue Ribbon Committee chairperson Richard Gordon said the country loses up to P98.5 billion (US$1.9 billion) a year in revenue due to the so-called "tara" payoff system.

Taguba earlier claimed "Tita Nannie" instructed him to bring P5 million to Davao City before he could meet Paolo Duterte, but the meeting never took place.

He said he brought a blue Lacoste bag containing P5 million cash to be given to Davao City Councilor Nilo "Small" Abellera, Jr. in Davao City last Jan. 16, 2017.

Abellera, the vice mayor's alleged bagman, admitted to meeting Taguba and "Jack" but denied receiving money from them. Abellera said he did not grant Taguba's request for help to meet the vice mayor.