MANILA – The chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee on Wednesday proposed the creation of the Agricultural Trade Intelligence and Investigation Service (ATIIS) within the Department of Agriculture (DA) to address the rampant smuggling of agricultural products in the country.

In a request addressed to DA Secretary William Dar and DA Undersecretary Fermin Adriano, Salceda asked the DA to formalize its request for police powers, earlier mentioned by Dar in a statement, by sending a draft of the proposed measure to him.

Salceda said he is also drafting a proposed measure and wants the department's input on the matter.

“I have already taken the initiative and we are filing that measure. But I also want DA to see what works best given their hierarchy and needs,” Salceda said.

Salceda made the request amid reports of PHP300 billion in palm oil products technically smuggled into Philippine markets.

Technical smuggling in palm oil products is allegedly conducted by declaring imports are crude palm oil fit for animal consumption, which is not subject to value-added tax.

He said the ATIIS will be empowered to conduct investigations, apprehend offenders, and seize technically smuggled agricultural products, as well as work with customs enforcement.

The unit will also be allowed to file charges against offenders of Republic Act 10845 or the Anti-Agricultural Smuggling Act of 2016.

“The problem with RA 10845 is that, although it classifies large-scale agricultural smuggling as economic sabotage, the teeth and the strong arm to enforce the law are not specified. The Bureau of Customs (BOC) is made the lead implementing agency, but even its prosecutorial or enforcement powers are not elaborated enough,” Salceda added.

Aside from the ATIIS, the Customs Intelligence and Investigation Service of the Bureau of Customs (BOC) should also be strengthened in order to close the loopholes that technical smugglers exploit.

Salceda said giving the DA unit police powers to enforce anti-smuggling laws will also ensure that there is another layer of protection from smuggled goods for the country's domestic agriculture sector.

“The unit will also help address the concerns of the DA that the Department of Justice may not have the bandwidth to expeditiously pursue cases filed on agricultural smuggling,” Salceda said.

Similar to how the Bureau of Internal Revenue can pursue cases on tax evaders, the Secretary of Agriculture should be able to pursue cases against agricultural smugglers, he noted.

“Agricultural smuggling is a serious, existential threat to local agriculture and food security. We cannot allow some gap in the law to prevent us from fighting the problem," he said.

Department of Justice (DOJ) Secretary Menardo Guevarra, for his part, said government agencies are already looking into cases of smuggling of agricultural products, including the alleged misdeclaration of goods to escape or avail of lower tariff rates.

Guevarra said he has directed the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) to conduct its independent investigation on reports of rampant smuggling of certain agricultural products, misdeclaration, and undervaluation.

He said prosecutors were also ordered to promptly pursue pending preliminary investigation cases on agricultural smuggling.

“I have directed our state prosecutors to check their dockets and speed up the preliminary investigation and pursue their prosecution in court. The DOJ and the ARTA (Anti-Red Tape Authority) are coordinating efforts to build up cases against those in the government and private sectors, who are suspected of participation in agricultural smuggling activities,” he said. (PNA)