Customs: Tapioca starch, not shabu, was auctioned off

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, May 31) — The Bureau of Customs (BOC) on Friday said it did not put a shabu shipment up for auction in response to a privilege speech by Senator Panfilo "Ping" Lacson.

"As far as the BOC is concerned, what was auctioned in April 2019 was tapioca starch which is highly perishable in nature," the BOC said in a statement.

A May 25 media release from the bureau, however, said that "instead of immediately seizing the illegal shipment," authorities conducted a public bidding, "hoping to draw out possible members of the drug syndicates who may be interested in bidding on the drug shipment."

This was the same narrative of the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency (PDEA) on May 24 when it announced the seizure of ₱1 billion worth of shabu concealed in aluminum pallets in a tapioca starch shipment from a warehouse in Malabon City.

Lacson on Wednesday accused BOC and PDEA of lying, noting a more believable statement from PDEA Metro Manila Director Joel B. Plaza dated May 11 that authorities did not detect the illegal drugs until the winning bidder, Malabon-based Goldwin Commercial Warehouse, reported it to Customs.

"It does not take much to figure out the holes in the plot that some not-so-smart characters in these agencies tried to fabricate but failed miserably. Simply put, this is a case of dishonesty with the intention of misleading the public," Lacson said.

"Did Customs and PDEA officials really expect the owners of this shipment to actually participate in the said public auction knowing fully well that forfeited and seized commodities undergo 100-percent physical examination prior to disposition?" he added.

He said the auction of illegal drugs violates the Customs Modernization and Tariff Act. The BOC said it is aware of this law, adding it is coordinating with Lacson's office to clarify issues he had raised.

PDEA earlier said authorities had a tip that illegal drugs concealed in a tapioca starch shipment would enter the country during the investigation of two separate raids in Cavite which yielded over ₱2 billion worth of shabu last February. The BOC then recovered the abandoned tapioca starch shipment in March and on April 22 put it up for auction, hoping to lure possible drug syndicate members.

The 146-kilogram drug haul was retrieved during a joint operation of the PDEA, Customs, Coast Guard, police, and military on May 22. PDEA said the drugs came from Cambodia and is linked to the Golden Triangle drug syndicate, one of the biggest in Southeast Asia.