Agents seize P220 million worth of sugar in three separate raids

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CUSTOMS agents seized 44,000 sacks of hoarded sugar worth P220 million in separate raids north of Manila, the capital on Wednesday and Thursday as part of a crackdown amid rising sugar prices and tight supply.

The agents and police raided two warehouses in Bulacan province and another in Pampanga on orders of President Ferdinand R. Marcos, Jr., who is also Agriculture secretary, the Bureau of Customs (BoC) said in a statement.

“The BoC’s Pampanga sugar warehouse raid may very well serve as a warning to unscrupulous traders who are currently hoarding their stocks of sugar in order to profit from the current artificial sugar shortage situation,” Executive Secretary Victor D. Rodriguez said in a separate statement.

The government might visit more warehouses in the coming days, Press Secretary Trixie-Cruz Angeles told a news briefing.

Mr. Rodriguez earlier said the government was investigating reports that certain traders were pushing the imports of 300,000 metric tons of sugar so they could use it as a cover to release hoarded sugar, which they have not sold for fear of lowering prices.

The Sugar Regulatory Administration had authorized the imports, which Mr. Marcos later rejected. Three of the officials who signed the order have quit their jobs.

“Reports reaching the Office of the Executive Secretary said such massive importation of sugar could result in windfall profits for the traders of at least P300 million with a portion of the amount earmarked as lobby money,” Mr. Rodriguez said.

The Customs bureau is investigating reports that the Pampanga warehouse had long been smuggling sugar from Thailand, repacking and then selling it as local sugar, the presidential palace said.

Like the Pampanga warehouse, the two warehouses in Bulacan were also suspected of storing smuggled goods.

The agents also found imported corn starch from China, sacks of imported flour, plastic products, oil in plastic barrels, motorcycle parts and wheels of different brands, helmets, LED TVs and paints inside the Pampanga warehouse.

Authorities have given the warehouse owners 15 days to present import documents, the palace said.

Meanwhile, Ms. Angeles said Mr. Marcos, Senate President Juan Miguel F. Zubiri and sugar stakeholders have agreed to import 150,000 metric tons (MT) of sugar.

“That’s the proposed quantity for importation given the need of the industrials,” she said. “They are the ones who use sugar in commercial quantities and some jobs are dependent on their continued production.”

The president in a YouTube video on Sunday said he might allow as much as 150,000 MT of sugar imports in October due to tight supply. He also said he might let food manufacturers import sugar directly.

Mr. Marcos took the helm of the Agriculture department in June, vowing to boost food production and limit imports as much as possible.

Analysts have said the president would probably pursue free trade deals despite his protectionist stance, noting that he has yet to push changes to policies that have liberalized the Philippine economy.

Also on Thursday, Senator Ana Theresia N. Hontiveros-Baraquel urged Mr. Marcos to appoint an Agriculture chief who could focus on the sector to avoid another fiasco.

“This fiasco with the Sugar Regulatory Administration is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the chaotic organization and operation of the Department of Agriculture (DA),” she said in a statement.

“The president should reconsider his position and appoint a competent person who would take charge of the DA, end all controversies in the department, and focus on helping farmers and ensuring adequate food supply in the country,” she added.

Ms. Hontiveros said the sugar debacle presented a “deeply problematic” leadership issues at the Agriculture department and its attached agencies.

“It is clear by now that having the president also perform the tasks of a DA secretary only causes confusion and dysfunctionality in the bureaucracy,” she said. “This took place within the first 100 days of the current administration.”

The lawmaker said the public would continue to suffer from more of these blunders if the agency’s leadership structure is not reformed.

She noted that the president handles several offices and juggling responsibilities together with the issues encountered by the Agriculture department would be “very difficult.”

“Focusing on this crisis cannot be a part-time job,” Ms. Hontiveros said. “We need a good and proper DA Secretary who will help farmers and consumers full-time.” — Norman P. Aquino, Alyssa Nicole O. Tan and K.A.T. Atienza

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