President Rodrigo Duterte made the announcement late Sunday in an expletives-laden speech in southern Davao city before an audience that included visiting Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi. At one point, Duterte made a rude finger gesture and uttered a profanity.
Duterte cited "a state of lawlessness" that he declared following a deadly 2016 bombing to justify putting the military in control of the customs bureau. The agency's officials will be put on a "floating status" and be required to conduct their work in a gymnasium in the presidential palace complex, he said.
The agency, which collects import duties and taxes for the Department of Finance, has more than 3,000 officials, customs police and employees nationwide. "Part of the lawless elements are there inside the Bureau of Customs," Duterte said. "With this kind of game that they are playing, dirty games, I am forced now to ask the armed forces to take over."
Military chief of staff Gen. Carlito Galvez Jr. ordered a contingent "of unquestionable integrity" from the army, air force, navy and marines to be organized to comply with the order by Duterte, who also named a retired military chief to lead the customs bureau. But opposition politicians questioned the legality of the president's move, citing the constitutional principle of the supremacy of civilian authority over the military.
"This is backdoor dictatorship," Sen. Risa Hontiveros said. "He should stop treating the military as his personal troubleshooting department. ... His order is not a demonstration of political will, it is a pathetic display of weak leadership."
Duterte replaced two of his most trusted men he had appointed to head the customs bureau after large shipments of suspected methamphetamine slipped through the agency last year and in July this year. Congress is investigating how the drugs, which were declared as kitchenware and magnetic lifters, were smuggled out of the government's most tightly watched ports.
Under a temporary setup, military personnel will be tasked to inspect and clear container vans in Manila and other Philippine ports. Some will be trained to operate X-ray machines used to screen cargos. Customs officials and personnel who have been implicated in corruption, meanwhile, will be investigated and face criminal charges.
Duterte insisted his trusted appointees, Nicanor Faeldon and Isidro Lapena, were honest but said they failed to prevent the entry of the drug shipments due to long-entrenched corruption in the customs bureau.
Lapena and Faeldon both denied any involvement in the drug shipments and pledged to cooperate in congressional inquiries. Other customs officials and employees have not commented on Duterte's actions.
The drugs in the shipment last year were later traced to a warehouse in metropolitan Manila, and the July shipment was later found in Cavite province. Duterte said he has become exasperated with combating corruption in many government agencies. The two shipments were made despite an unprecedentedly massive crackdown against illegal drugs he launched after taking office in June 2016. Nearly 5,000 drug suspects have been killed in alleged clashes with law enforcers in the anti-crime campaign, which has alarmed Western governments and U.N. human rights experts.
Human rights watchdogs have reported much higher death tolls and have accused police of killing suspects unlawfully and making it appear the suspects fought back. Duterte and police officials have denied condoning unlawful killings, although he has openly and repeatedly threatened drug suspects with death.
"Do not listen to the human rights (groups). They cannot help us when we go down the drain, don't believe them because it's not true," Duterte said.