HOW do you solve a problem like Lourdes “Des” Mangaoang, an outspoken lawyer who believes in her expertise and experience being able to trace shabu (methamphetamine hydrochloride) smuggled in the hollow sections of such equipment as magnetic lifters?
This week, Mangaoang was all over media, sharing her expertise on X-ray detection of contraband. She said a lot on the CNN Philippines show “The Source” and in her testimony at congressional hearings on the smuggling going on right under the noses of Customs gatekeepers.
Her “noisy” disclosures may have contributed to the sudden ouster of Customs Commissioner Isidro Lapeña despite his conceding, rather belatedly, that shabu could have been hidden in the four magnetic lifters moved to a Cavite bodega in August after arrival at the Manila International Container Terminal.
Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency analysis of the shabu intercepted at the MITC showed that it is of the same stock as the batch that had slipped in and is now being sold. The agency said shabu has so flooded the market that the price has dropped to P1,400 – P1,800 per gram, way below the P6,800 – P8,000 per gram in July.
Netizens have noted that while the price of food and fuel has gone up, the street price of shabu has gone down, making for brisker distribution. This feeds the lingering suspicion that drug lords enjoy the protection of influential people.
President Duterte himself had declared that there was no shabu in the magnetic lifters. No wonder his pulling out Lapeña from Customs looked like a preemptive step as the bushfire of “alleged protection” crawled nearer the presidential Palace.
When asked by Pinky Webb, “The Source” show hostess, if she would like to see Lapeña resign, Mangaoang’s quick retort was that he should be “sacked.”
How would the President’s PR handlers solve a problem like this lady lawyer, one obviously wise to the dirty tricks at Customs, who when asked for her expert opinion, sallied forth and gave lawmakers and lawbreakers alike a piece of her mind?
Demolition attempts to expose Mangaoang’s alleged links to smugglers (which she vehemently denied) looked too pat. The pitching by some pro-Duterte bloggers of gossip on her private life dropped like a foul ball.
Maybe Duterte could try converting her into an asset? He could tap Mangaoang’s expertise and give her a job more appropriate than her present assignment as deputy customs collector at the Manila international airport.
Instead of a job interview, Duterte could watch preliminarily her “The Source” chat with Pinky Webb or sample her thinking on customs operations and note her strong opinion of some people.
In media interviews, Mangaoang the lawyer did not hesitate to call Lapeña a “liar,” adding that he could be held liable as an “accessory” to big-time shabu smuggling.
She said that Lapeña ignored intelligence reports received before the arrival of the hot lifters, as well as her subsequent findings that the devices had drugs stashed in them. The commissioner later back-pedaled, but only after the shabu was already in the market.
Suspecting a coverup, she said: “Pinagtakpan niya, sinabi niyang walang droga diyan, yung aksyon niya yan ay magagamit ng drug syndicate in their defense. Kapag pinagtakpan mo, kapag tinatago mo yung body of the crime or the commission of the crime, you are at the very least an accessory. You must be charged.”
She added: “Commissioner of Customs siya, dapat siya ang nagpo-prosecute ng smugglers pero in this case ginagawa niya, pinagtatakpan niya, pinagtatanggol niya iyung drug syndicates.”
• Former boss talks of Des Mangaoang
INDEED, how do you solve a problem like Lourdes Mangaoang? Hoping to find an answer, we asked her former boss, Muntinlupa Rep. Ruffy Biazon, who was customs commissioner from September 2011 to December 2013.
He sits with the committee where she clashed days ago with some congressmen who seemed to be harassing her instead of drawing information in good faith from a resource person invited precisely to share her expert opinion.
Part of what Biazon told us: “When I assumed the post of Commissioner, she was the head of the X-ray Inspection Project (XIP). She was a pioneer, the first head of the unit when it was created. When I came on board, she had been in the post around six years already. I would say she is competent as a customs collector (she knows the Customs law by heart), and had enough exposure and experience in the X-ray operations, having undergone trainings and seminars in X-ray techniques and procedures.
“I transferred her out of X-ray as part of my rotation initiative. The item she held was collector of Customs for Cagayan de Oro so I placed her there. I also wanted to break any familiarity within the unit and increase the number of supervising personnel who would have experience in X-ray.
“She Is known to be an assertive person especially if she believes in what she’s standing for. Some get offended by her style and manner of speaking, although it never bothered me.
“Her testimony had some basis and had I been presented with such image analysis I would have erred on the side of caution and had the shipment manually inspected. I think the circumstantial evidence was sufficient. Customs should always be suspicious, because there are always interests whose objective is to circumvent or fool customs.
“As commissioner I lobbied strongly for the passage of the customs modernization and tariff act. It had been pending in Congress for quite some time but since the operating law was unchanged since 1957, I believed that the first step to reforming customs is to update the law to conform to present day needs, standards and practices, aligning Philippine customs with those of other countries. My other initiatives and recommendations would have been big accomplishments but challenges and the sudden decision to resign prevented their completion.”