Senator Risa Hontiveros on Wednesday said that the memorandum by Department of Agriculture (DA) Senior Undersecretary Domingo Panganiban clearing the release of smuggled sugar which entered the country without proper permits is the “smoking gun” proof that high-ranking officials are behind the country’s latest sugar import fiasco.
The senator made the statement after Panganiban issued a memorandum dated February 27, 2023 where he cleared for release imported sugar stocks including 240,000 metric tons of sugar consigned to All Asian Countertrade Inc. which entered the country with no proper permits and before a corresponding Sugar Order was issued by the Sugar Regulatory Administration (SRA), in violation of existing laws.
“Ika nga, ang isda ay sa bibig nahuhuli. Totoo iyan, kahit sa smuggling ng asukal. Sa mismong memo ng DA lumalabas ang katotohanan – na matataas na opisyal ang nasa likod ng binubuong cartel at smuggling ring sa suplay ng asukal sa bansa. We should not ignore this ‘smoking gun’ proof of government-sponsored sugar smuggling being coordinated at the highest levels of bureaucracy,” Hontiveros said.
Panganiban’s memo, Hontiveros noted, explicitly included “the shipments to All Asian Countertrade Inc., which have arrived in the country” among the imported sugar to be released. According to Hontiveros, this is a reference to the shipment of sugar in 260 20-foot containers which reportedly arrived at the port of Batangas last February 9, 2023. The shipment, consigned to All Asian Countertrade Inc., lacked proper documentation.
“That’s the smoking gun – sila na mismo ang tahasang umamin, in black and white – that they were aware that shipments of sugar arrived in the country way before March 1, 2023, which is the earliest date the validly imported supply under Sugar Order No. 6 could reach our ports. Not only were they aware of those dubious shipments, they even wanted to clear them for release despite those shipments being obviously smuggled,” Hontiveros said.
“Hindi rin nila pwedeng gamitin ang Sugar Order No. 6 bilang palusot. That order only took effect on February 15, 2023, while All-Asian’s sugar shipments already arrived in the country by February 9, 2023. Since they had no proper permits, those shipments should be considered as the subject of large-scale agricultural smuggling,” she added.
All Asian Countertrade Inc., Hontiveros pointed out, was one of the three trading firms “handpicked” by Panganiban to import the country’s supply of sugar, as admitted by Panganiban himself in a press conference last February 22, 2023. Documents earlier signed by Panganiban – and which were revealed to the public by Hontiveros – said that the authority given to All Asian Countertrade were “as per instructions of Executive Secretary Lucas Bersamin.”
“Nakakagalit na mistulang gobyerno pa mismo ang hayagang kumikilos at nagkakamada ng pag-buo ng kartel at smuggling ring sa suplay ng asukal. Last year, during the first sugar import fiasco, several agricultural officials were suspended and subjected to multiple investigations. Ngayon siguro, dapat nang makasuhan at makulong ang mga tiwaling opisyal na inaabuso ang kanilang pwesto dito sa sugar import fiasco 2.0,” Hontiveros said.
Hontiveros, who earlier filed proposed Senate Resolution No. 497 calling for a probe of the said controversy, said that the Senate should immediately investigate the incident and prevent the formation of a “government-backed cartel” which will hoard the supply of sugar and manipulate sugar prices in the country.
“Hinihintay ng buong bansa ang Senado, sa pamamagitan ng Senate Blue Ribbon Committee, na gampanan ang kanyang obligasyon. Huwag nating hayaan na maging cartel organizer ang DA, at mapuno ng kickbackan, kontratahan, at katiwalian ang ating agricultural processes. Kung hindi tayo kikilos, hindi na bababa ang presyo ng bilihin, at talo na naman ang mga mamimili at ang kanilang mga pamilya,” Hontiveros concluded.