Lapeña denies liability as DOJ ends probe on 'shabu-filled' magnetic lifters

Mike Navallo, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Mar 12 2019 10:05 PM

MANILA - A panel of Justice Department prosecutors on Wednesday concluded its probe on billions worth of alleged shabu shipments supposedly hidden through magnetic lifters.

Assistant State Prosecutor Mary Jane Sytat, head of the panel, declared the preliminary investigation submitted for resolution after requiring the parties to submit their respective affidavits.

The panel also conducted ocular inspections at the Port of Manila and in a warehouse in Cavite where the magnetic lifters were found.

Present during Wednesday’s probe were Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency Director General Aaron Aquino, who subscribed to PDEA’s position paper, and former Customs intelligence agent Jimmy Guban, alleged to be one of the principal players in the smuggling of illegal drugs, who is currently under the witness protection program of the DOJ.

HOW IT ALL BEGAN

The case stemmed from the discovery of 2 abandoned magnetic lifters at the Port of Manila in August 2018 which contained 355 kilos of shabu worth P2.4 billion.

A day after, 4 similar lifters were discovered abandoned at a warehouse in General Mariano Alvarez, Cavite which PDEA believes to have contained 1.6 tons of shabu worth an estimated P11 billion. 

The 2 incidents became the subject of several Senate and House hearings, with former Customs Commissioner Isidro Lapeña initially denying that the magnetic lifters found in Cavite contained shabu, only to concede later on.

In August 2018, PDEA filed an illegal drug importation complaint against 4 respondents involved in the shabu shipment at the Port of Manila.

In December 2018, PDEA filed criminal complaints against more than 40 respondents over the shabu shipment in Cavite. The respondents included high-ranking government officials – former PDEA Deputy Director General for Administration Ismael Fajardo, Jr., former PNP AIDG OIC Senior Superintendent Eduardo Acierto, and Guban.

Fajardo, Acierto and Guban were later identified by the National Bureau of Investigation as the core conspirators in the criminal and administrative complaints it filed with the DOJ in January this year against more than 50 individuals, including Lapeña.

The NBI lodged complaints for importation of illegal drugs, graft and grave misconduct against the three while it slapped Lapeña and other officials with 2 counts each of violating the Anti-Graft and Corrupt Practices Act and administrative complaints of dereliction of duty and grave misconduct.

The DOJ consolidated all 3 complaints.

Fajardo and Acierto did not take part in the probe since it started last month. PDEA and the NBI said their whereabouts are currently unknown.

LAPEÑA COUNTER-AFFIDAVIT

Lapeña attended only once, during the February 21 hearing, to submit his counter-affidavit in response to the NBI’s allegations.

Lapeña was not included in the 2 PDEA complaints with no less than PDEA Director General Aquino saying his team found no “direct link” between Lapeña and the two shipments.

But the NBI faulted Lapeña over his alleged failure to file complaints against the consignees, importers and brokers involved in the importation of the magnetic lifters.

In his counter-affidavit recently obtained by ABS-CBN News, Lapeña listed the steps he took immediately after the discovery of the magnetic lifters: the creation of an investigation committee, the revocation of accreditation of some traders and brokers, the filing of criminal complaint against a trader in August 2018 and the filing of administrative charges against some Customs personnel including Guban. He also said he coordinated with PDEA.

“[F]rom the time of the discovery of the subject magnetic lifters until I was appointed as Director General of TESDA, the BOC wasted no time and exerted continuous and considerable efforts to investigate and conduct backtracking operations in order to bring to light the identities of the persons responsible for the smuggling of the subject magnetic lifters, contrary to the allegations of complainant NBI-TFAID in its Transmittal Letter dated 14 January 2019,” he said.

He said the allegations against him were mentioned only in the transmittal letter of the NBI and not in the joint affidavit executed by NBI agents.

“In effect, despite the opportunity given to me to file this Counter-Affidavit, the vagueness and insufficiency of the allegations in the Joint Affidavit of Investigation dated 24 January 2019, at least insofar as I am concerned, is a clear violation of my Constitutional right to due process because I was not given the proper chance to refute the substance of the allegations,” he said.

He also defended his initial belief that there were no drugs in the magnetic lifters found in Cavite. He had relied on the negative result of the swab test while PDEA relied on the actions of drug-sniffing canines.

“[N]owhere can it be found in our laws or jurisprudence that the suggestive detection by canine dogs on the presence of illegal drugs was given more credence over negative laboratory examinations, including swab tests,” he said, pointing out that a laboratory examination is part of the “chain of custody” requirement in drugs cases under the law.

He also denied any conspiracy with other BOC officials.

“[M]erely being the then Commissioner of BOC does not mean knowledge, approval and participation absent any showing of my active participation in the act alleged as criminal,” he said.

The DOJ panel has 60 days to come up with a resolution on the magnetic lifters complaints.