GMA orders crackdown vs smugglers of onions

PHILIPPINE NEWS SERVICE — PRESIDENT Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo has ordered the Presidential Anti-Smuggling Group (PASG) to crackdown against smugglers of agricultural products, especially onions, which are adversely affecting the market for local producers.

Press Secretary Cerge Remonde made the announcement even as he cited PASG chief Undersecretary Antonio Bebot Villar Jr. for his agency’s close to P.5-billion bust of jewelry and precious stones notably diamonds. Remonde said the President received complaints from Nueva Ecija farmers about onions being smuggled into the country. The practice leads to fall in prices and losses to farmers.

He said the imported onions are brought either to Urdaneta, Pangasinan, or to the Mountain Province to make it appear that they are locally grown.

He observed imported onions are sold below local production costs.

“You wonder how these imported onions can leave the Customs areas, where cargoes pass through X-rays and are subjected to full examination. The local market is flooded with imported onions,” he said.

Asked what the PASG will do, Villar said: “We are working double time going after smugglers. We are not interested in retailers. These are small fry who just get a percentage of the sales. We want to get the smugglers themselves.”

Villar said he will ask President Arroyo for authority to go inside the Customs area and examine documents and files.

He said he was tipped off that smugglers want to bring in 1,000 containers of onions in Subic.

Earlier, the PASG seized 160 karats of smuggled diamonds valued at P.5 billion. Villar said the diamonds were seized three days ago from the Pacific Place condominium in Makati City.

The hot stuff were owned by Apha Kwok, a Chinese-born British national from Hong Kong, who arrived 174 times in the Philippines and left 160 times based on Bureau of Immigration entries.

Kwok reportedly did not have the necessary work permit to operate her business in the country. The diamonds are still being inventoried and verified as to their purity and market value, Villar said in a press briefing in Malacañang.

Earlier, PO2 Florante Azur received intelligence report that Kwok was selling bulk of signature watches, semi-precious stones and diamonds at her condominium unit at Room 1702 of the Pacific Place.

Kwok earlier said that her gems are from Hong Kong, and are sold lower than the local market value since she is not paying Customs duties and taxes.

Villar reported that prior to the seizure of the diamonds, the PASG seized a month ago 300 grams of used clothes (ukay-ukay) and P60-million worth of laptops that came in at zero tariff.

The PASG was commended recently by Hong Kong-based consultant against graft and corruption Anthony Kwok, as the “bright spot” in President Arroyo’s anti corruption campaign.

Villar said Kwok is the sole distributor of smuggled diamonds in the National Capital Region and has many clients.

He said the PASG is still validating the long list of her numerous “suki” and six local contacts to find out the possible involvement of some people in Customs.

Aside from diamonds, the agents also obtained from Kwok’s condo unit uncut emerald, marquis (round) and other precious stones.