Can we lick smuggling?

I caught a few minutes of the TV livestreaming of the on-going Senate Blue Ribbon Committee investigation into the P6.4 billion shabu smuggling case that was uncovered last year. Blue Ribbon chairman Senator Dick Gordon was giving a lecture on how Japan rose to become a superpower. He said this was just to illustrate how Japan, with a culture heavily steeped in honor, managed to harness resources to build a strong economy. One reason is that Japan has virtually no smuggling. There’s no reason why the Philippines can’t lick smuggling as well.


Photo credit: Philippine Daily Inquirer

But the corruption at the Bureau of Customs is deeply entrenched, and nothing has worked so far to eliminate the old practices like the “tara” system that breeds the corruption at the agency. Everybody, from top-level management down to the janitor and messenger, is on the take. Just look at the lifestyle of BOC employees! Ordinary clerks drive SUVs.

The problem is that corruption at BOC doesn’t just deprive Filipinos of resources that could contribute to improving the lives of the poor. This endemic problem is what makes it possible for Chinese smugglers to bring in tons and tons of shabu into the country. The P6.4 billion smuggle case is just one of many. And even now, shabu supply remains abundant, a solid testimony to the inability of our government to plug the leaks at BOC.

If President Duterte fails to stop smuggling of shabu, then his war against illegal drugs will become a big, sick joke. With the thousands of casualties in this drug war, President Duterte should realize that killing several thousands more will not end the problem. With poverty still unchecked, there will always be poor Filipinos who will gamble their lives selling shabu and feed their families.
This is the challenge confronting the President.

Boracay: let it take a break

As far back as 1985, overcrowding in Boracay Island was already an issue. Asiaweek sent me there to look into complaints about the paradise island being spoiled as a result of the rapid development of resorts. It was my first time to visit Boracay, and going there was really an adventure. The roads from Iloilo to Caticlan were bad; it must have taken me 6 hours to travel there by a non-aircon bus.

I can still remember the first time the pumpboat I took to cross over to the island from Caticlan. Around a kilometer from shore, I was already amazed by the crystal-clear waters. The corals were visible and looked as if the bottom was just a meter deep. The boatman told me the depth of the waters was more like 10 meters. And the white sand on beach appeared like baby powder.

Upon disembarkation, I exclaimed to myself: This is really paradise. And I wasn’t surprised that the people there wanted to stop the development of more resorts. There were only a dozen or so small resorts, consisting of nipa-roofed cottages in a compound numbering around 8 or 10. If I remember correctly, there were less than 200 such cottages on the island in 1985. The island had no electricity; at night, each cottage only had a gas lamp for illumination. I spent 3 days on the island talking with local residents and resort owners. They wanted to preserve the beauty of the island.

At the time, the biggest resort was Friday’s (I don’t if it’s still there).

Boracay beach front June 2017

The author enjoying his favorite brew at the Boracay beach in June 2017.

No roads. No motorized transportation. If you wanted to explore the island, you had to walk. At night, strolling down the beach was a favorite activity, with only the moon and the stars providing illumination. The crowds wouldn’t qualify as a crowd in the modern sense of Boracay. During the 3 days I was there, I estimated the number of tourists at around 300. Definitely not in the thousands which is now what we see on Boracay.

Boracay in 1985 was still paradise compared to what it has become now. The people who complained about overcongestion didn’t know things would only worsen in the years and decades to come. I was just lucky to have visited Boracay when its pristine condition was still almost intact. Over the years, each time I went to Boracay, I saw the recklessness, and total lack of concern, in its development. Everybody just wanted the money. The environment was sacrificed.

President Duterte was correct when he described Boracay as a cesspool. It became a victim of its own success. It’s time to stop this crazy rush to build more resorts. Let Boracay take a break.

Will Napoles spill the beans?

I have never believed that Janet Lim Napoles masterminded the siphoning of billions of pesos of public funds into the hands of lawmakers through fake NGOs and other avenues. It was above and beyond her competency, to put it directly. She was just a high school graduate who learned to corner huge government contracts using connections in the military back in the 90s.

Janet_Lim-Napoles_mugshotWhen the Aquino administration came to power in 2010, she had developed enough political contacts to be able to penetrate the inner sanctums of government. She was in the right place at the right time. Top officials of the Aquino administration, especially those in Congress and the DBM, found in Napoles a perfect specimen, a businesswoman who followed orders to the letter for a piece of the pie. The pie happened to be the PDAF and DAP (Disbursement Acceleration Program). A former Cabinet secretary, a lawyer from Iloilo, was assigned to be the cow tender for the Napoles machinery.

The complexity of the entire operation is enough to show that Napoles couldn’t have conceived how the money will be stolen. It took the evil genius of these top LP leaders to map out the whole scam, right from the faucet of DBM to the bank accounts of lawmakers who partook of the largess. Of course, what is not highlighted is the fact that the real masterminds reaped a bigger harvest. Napoles got small change, although that was in the vicinity of hundreds of millions of pesos. It was easy money for Napoles, but easier still for the brains of the scam.

As expected, the news about Napoles being admitted to the Witness Protection Program (WPP) of the Department of Justice was devastating for lawmakers who were in one way or the other complicit in the scam. But the biggest fright is now being felt by the real masterminds. For one thing, Napoles could provide information about her shopping trips with the wife of an LP senator abroad. That would belie the claim of that LP senator that he and Napoles were mere acquaintances.

Those who have no dark secrets with Napoles don’t have to be worried. After all, her testimony would be subjected to cross-examination at trial. If she is lying, then the innocent can win back their freedoms.

The 2019 gubernatorial race in Iloilo

Iloilo City politics would have turned out to be dull and unexciting had it not been for the falling out — or so it seems — between brothers-in-law Cong. Jerry P. Trenas and City Mayor Joe Espinosa III. But I will leave the topic momentarily as nothing is as yet definite; there are Herculean efforts going on behind the scenes to reconcile the two.

I will shift my attention to the provincial race: the 2019 gubernatorial elections.

Midway in 2018, a three-way fight was brewing, with 1st District Cong. Richard Garin, 3rd District Cong. Arthur “Toto” Defensor Jr., and 4th District Cong. Ferjenel Biron looming as the protagonists. However, the Dengvaxia scandal erupted, and this dragged Garin down with it. His wife, former DOH Secretary Janette Garin, is in the eye of the storm. That served as a TKO punch against Garin; his wife’s scandal knocked him down, and put out of contention.

Now, only Biron and Defensor are left on the ring. The 2019 race will unfurl as a grudge fight. In 2013, Toto’s father, the incumbent Arthur Defensor Sr., defeated Biron. Apparently, the senior Defensor wants to show that his popularity will carry Toto to victory and succeed him. He wants to retire seeing the Defensor brand continue to run the province.

As early as 2017, Biron had already started wooing municipal mayors outside his congressional district, taking them on short trips abroad for a get-to-know-each-other session. Specifically, he targeted the municipal mayors of the 5th district and the 2nd district. It’s a given that Defensor will harvest the votes in his home district. When Biron began his courtship of the mayors, Garin was still in the running. His math was simple: win the support of the mayors in the 2nd and 5th, and his running would be smooth and easy.

So who has the edge?

In terms of municipal mayors who have lined up in support, there is no question that Biron has the upperhand. But experience shows that the number of municipal mayors backing up a gubernatorial candidate is the biggest key to victory. In 2004, the late Gov. Niel Tupas Sr. scored a landslide victory over then 1st District Cong. Oscar Garin Sr. even though he only had a handful of incumbent mayors on his side. Not only was Tupas outnumbered in terms of municipal mayors; among the five congressmen then, only Boboy Syjuco threw his support for Gov. Niel.

In 1992, then incumbent Gov. Simplicio Grino pulled a surprise victory against Mrs. Olive Padilla, who was backed by four out of five congressmen.

The Ilonggo vote can be unpredictable. When it comes to choosing their Governor, Ilonggo voters pick their personal preference over the dictates of their congressmen. And neither can a hostile President affect a gubernatorial bet’s chances. In 2007, the late Gov. Tupas won in what is perhaps the biggest landslide victory in Iloilo political history against then Vice Governor Obet Armada despite the disfavor he earned from Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo.

Clearly, victory for the governorship depends on the mass appeal, the charm, and the message of the candidates. The elections for governor is really a battle for the hearts and minds of the people, and not just plain political machinery. It is too early to say who will win. Both Toto Defensor and Ferj Biron haven’t started going on media yet to let the people scrutinize their personalities, ideas and platforms.

One thing is clear: the media, notably radio, will play a big role in the gubernatorial race. Social media is not yet that strong as to swing votes this way or that. But Facebook will have a strong influence among young voters.




The political season has definitely started for Iloilo City.

Last week, Long District Cong. Jerry P. Trenas, although still serving a 90-day preventive suspension from the Sandiganbayan, met with barangay officials and other grass-roots leaders in an apparent effort to get his political machinery warmed up. For several days, his office beside the Iloilo Fire Station was crowded with people from all walks of life. He reiterated his announcement about running for City Mayor once more and asked for their pledge of support. These meetings were buttered by P500 for each individual as “allowance”.

On the other hand, City Mayor Joe Espinosa III also convened a meeting of job hires — the backbone of the political juggernaut for as long as we can remember — with a similar agenda.  The job hires, which usually reach a peak of 5,000 people during an election year, were reminded on where their continued stay in City Hall depended on: the appointing authority.

This is rather amusing because all these happened as everybody else just sat still, waiting for developments to unfold. There was hardly a stirring in the “opposition camp”. The general mood was “wait-and-see” as this quarrel between brothers-in-law unfolded. Will this cold war worsen and ignite an all-out war between erstwhile allies? Or will cooler heads succeed in repairing the relationship which used to look like a Batman-and-Robin partnership?

Meanwhile, there are politicians waiting in the winds, waiting for cues as to what they will do next. Vice Mayor Jeffrey Ganzon, former Councilor Lex Tupas and former Councilor Jam-Jam Baronda are among those eyeing either the mayorship or congressional seat. Their decisions will depend on how this quarrel between Trenas and Espinosa will play out.

If a collision is inevitable, then Tupas and Baronda can aspire for the congressional seat. They would just need to ally with one of the two factions. Ganzon, although he is perceived to be the strongest aside from Trenas and Espinosa, lacks the financial capability. I would not be surprised if he is recruited as running mate by either one of the two. Ganzon would be the favorite for vice mayor in 2019 if that happens.

A family feud (Part II)

Joe III picturejerry trenas picture

Is the relationship between City Mayor Joe Espinosa III and Congressman Jerry Trenas now beyond repair?

This question is now being asked by most people in Iloilo City after eight Executive Assistants identified with Trenas reportedly resigned on Monday after reportedly being asked about where their loyalties lay.

The version of Joe III is that the city mayor called for a meeting with his executive assistants on Friday morning, but nobody among the Trenas-identified assistants showed up. In the afternoon, they were summoned by Senior Executive Assistant Jojo Castro and were given a gentle reminder about being loyal to the service, and not to any politician.

The Executive Assistants gave a different version: Castro reportedly told them to choose between Trenas and Joe III. This is what triggered their move to file their resignations, so their version goes.

But whatever really happened, this episode is an indication that the relationship between the brothers-in-law is not improving. It turned from bland to sour.

The apparent falling out is being interpreted by most people as a sure sign the “magbilas” are headed to a showdown for the mayorship in 2019.

Trenas has announced last week that upon the egging of most barangay captains in the city, he decided to run again for city mayor in next year’s elections, a move that didn’t sit well with Joe III. As the incumbent local chief executive, Joe III feels he deserved to have a say on who was running for what position. Joe III felt that Trenas couldn’t just presume to be the kingpin everybody would just obey on political decisions like this.

The unfolding events caused a lot of excitement among local political figures who sensed that a head-on collision between the “magbilas” was going to open opportunities for them.

A combined political machinery of Trenas and Joe III (the latter just having put his own imprint on the political landscape after he succeeded to the mayorship five months ago) would be formidable. If they could agree on running together, almost nobody has a fair chance of surviving the political juggernaut they could deploy. The dismissal of Jed Patrick E. Mabilog as city mayor last October meant that the political game has become, or could be, a family affair.

The classic “divide-and-conquer” principle is clearly on everybody’s mind with what is happening. That’s the reason some are encouraging it, adding fuel to the fire.

I’m not inclined to believe the brewing quarrel will not be resolved.

In the end, the interests of the family will triumph over personal and petty issues. The issue here is about respect, or the perceived lack of it, shown by one toward the other. Trenas and Joe III are tied by a powerful umbilical cord — the Sarabia family. This is the reason why the voices now emerging from both camps are now starting to be more sober, less provocative.

But should the situation not change, and get worse, then it presents a ripe opportunity for other political figures to rise to the occasion. I would expect these politicians to form alliances with either Trenas or Joe III. If the “magbilas” collide for the mayorship, then the congressional seat for the lone district will become open season.

A family feud

Is the rift between City Mayor Joe III Espinosa and Congressman Jerry Trenas real?
Until now there are still doubts as to how deep this quarrel is, especially after executive assistants identified with Trenas were asked to step down from their posts last week.
Even I wasn’t so sure, knowing how far back the relationship between Joe III and JPT is. Both went into politics together, and nothing has come between them. Well, until recently.
It seems JPT has misjudged Joe III.
All these years, Joe III has played the role of loyal political lieutenant, just contented with whatever role his “bilas” gave him.
In 2010, JPT and Joe III, along with Jed Patrick Mabilog, formed the backbone of the political juggernaut that seemed destined to rule Iloilo City for a considerably long time.
But even as early as 2013, the question was where would Joe III go after JPT and Jed finished their third term in 2019.
A rigodon was expected to take place in 2019 with JPT and Jed switching positions, with Jerry reclaiming the city mayor position and Jed taking over as congressman.
A solution suddenly arose last year when JPT announced he was quitting politics. This removed a potential conflict because Joe III could then run for city mayor and Jed to become congressman.
Everything seemed headed for a smooth transition for the “Uswang, Sulong and Arangka” team.
Then, Jed was dismissed from public office based on two cases I had filed a few years ago.
With JPT no longer in the running as he declared, and Mabilog out for good, the coast was clear for Joe III to take.
He was now City Mayor, and he started planning for his eventual election to the position to which he succeeded. The game plan looked so simple. With JPT backing him up, Joe III seemed to have the position as City Mayor on a silver platter.
What the public didn’t know was that the relationship between the two in-laws was starting to deteriorate. Despite their affinity — their wives are sisters — JPT and Joe III haven’t communicated with each other for quite some time now.
Perhaps JPT regarded Joe III as the political lightweight who depended on him for his continued survival and thought the new mayor would just obey his every command.
Joe III must have felt he deserved some respect. After all, he was now the City Mayor. He was no longer the “sidekick” who just followed what the boss dictated as to his political future.
(To be continued)