Sidetracked by other issues related to the shabu laboratory discovered last year in Virac, the House Committee on Dangerous Drugs’ public hearing in the capital town last week failed to achieve its objective of considering proposed measures against the transport of illegal drugs, precursor chemicals and equipment.
The well-attended hearing at the CSU Auditorium started auspiciously enough at 1:35 P.M., with committee chair Rep. Robert Ace Barbers saying that the hearing would craft remedial legislation. He claimed that the committee had already decided to hold its hearing in the island before Congressman Cesar Sarmiento filed House Resolution No. 585 directing concerned government agencies to intensify and coordinate efforts to suppress the trafficking of illegal drugs.
Asking the public to disabuse their minds of claims that there was a political agenda behind the hearing, Barbers said their aim was only to look for whys and hows of probable lapses of government agencies and local government units.
“Do not put political color on the hearing as the illegal drugs problem is bigger than politics,” Sarmiento said, adding that he wants to know how illegal drugs and equipment are transported across islands, who is in charge of transport security and if there is clear responsibilities and coordination between agencies.
He likewise showed a video of how closed vans and trucks board roll-on-roll-off ferries at San Andres, Virac and Tabaco ports without being inspected by the Philippine Coast Guard or the Philippine National Police. Rep. Barbers noted the laxity and lapses in the loading of cargo that has made ports the drop-off point of illegal substances.
“We are not pointing fingers at the owner of the ferry but rather the agencies tasked with security as we will pinpoint responsibility among the agencies for the shipment of contraband,” Rep. Sarmiento said.
Then things went downhill after this, with Rep. Rodel Batocabe of Ako Bicol partylist disclosed that the committee members were prevented from entering the shabu laboratory at Palta Small upon advice of the PNP Legal Service.
According to official sources, the controversy began when Atty. Mary Jane Zantua, officer-in-charge of the Provincial Prosecution Office learned that the House committee would be conducting an inspection of the lab. She immediately called the police investigator in charge of the case and told him that the committee would have to coordinate with the Department of Justice in Manila as the case was still under preliminary investigation. “I don’t care if they are congressmen,” she allegedly told the lawman, who relayed her observation to his superiors.
Reps. Barbers, Sarmiento, Batocabe, Arnolfo Teves Jr. and Seth Frederick Jalosjos, as well as the PNP regional and provincial command led by Chief Superintendent Melvin Ramon Buenafe had to cool their heels for 45 minutes at the site before they got the clearance from DOJ Secretary Vitaliano Aguirre III.
Later during lunch at Blossoms Restaurant, Prosecutor Zantua, who happened to drop by, had an opportunity to explain her side before the solons but apparently this was not enough.
Just after the PNP counsel explained that the prosecutor was merely raising concern about the preservation and integrity of the evidence, Barbers stressed that not even the DOJ or any agency can stop the committee from conducting an inquiry.
Admitting that she already lost jurisdiction over the case as it has been handed over to Assistant State Prosecutor Alexander Suarez, Zantua said her concerns were only on the preservation of evidence as the entire shabu lab is a crime scene and that the defense counsel might later raise objections on the admissibility of evidence.
“I never used the word ‘objection’”, Zantua insisted. The PNP legal counsel later took the blame, citing the investigator’s use of the word in relaying her call.
The prosecutor had to apologize for the committee’s inconvenience but this was apparently not enough as the solons took turns criticizing her interference. “It’s a bit brash on your part to delay, tell us to stop, medyo nabulabog ang DOJ central office,” the congressmen said.
Batocabe also initiated a separate discussion on why Virac Mayor Samuel Laynes and Regional Trial Court (RTC) Executive Judge Lelu Contreras was already at the shabu lab before she issued the search warrant.
The police admitted that it sought the mayor’s help on how to enter the compound as efforts to use the Bureau of Fire Protection to inspect it failed. Laynes also bared that he invited the property’s lessor, Angelica Balmadrid, along as the lease contract had a provision allowing the owner to enter the premises if any violation of law is found.
Informed of the mention of her name, the judge showed up at the hearing and asked the committee to investigate the BFP fire marshal, who along with two undercover cops, were refused entry by Jason Uy but accepted a snack of Coke and biscuit from the Chinese.
The committee’s beef with the judge stemmed from the erroneous report of the police that she was already at the site in the morning of Nov. 26 together with Mayor Laynes. She denied being there that morning but admitted that she was at the site in the afternoon, hours before she issued the search warrant. The committee reportedly said Contreras as well as the mayor and several police officials would be invited to an executive session in Manila.
Governor Joseph Cua’s attempt to get the committee to consider the report that eight armed men raided the shabu lab a day earlier sputtered in the end as the police denied knowledge of the blotter entry of the incident made by the farm caretaker.
Army officer 1Lt. Jomar Clavel, who told the committee that he indeed received a call from the police to standby as the latter had an operation in Palta Small on Nov. 25, was never asked as to the identity of the caller.
Rep. Batocabe also alleged that local businessman Alex Ang Hung was the contractor of the shabu lab building and that his trucks were seen delivering materials. The claim was never corroborated by the police.
The committee hearing had to adjourn at nearly 7 P.M., with the police unable to finish delivering its report on the shabu lab investigation and the invited officials of concerned transport agencies never got the chance to speak.