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Agriculture chief should face DOJ panel over garlic cartel allegations

Photo by Rey Sibayan

The Department of Justice or DOJ panel of prosecutors handling the garlic cartel case should conduct an honest-to-goodness preliminary investigation to make those responsible in the Department of Agriculture or DA be charged in court.


Valenzuela City Congressman Win Gatchalian issued the statement, reacting to news reports that Prosecutor-General Claro Arellano has designated three prosecutors who will determine if there is probable cause to file the criminal case earlier filed by the National Bureau of Investigation or NBI.


The panel is composed of Asst. State Prosecutor Ramon Chito Mendoza and prosecutors Agnes Bagaforo-Arellano and Christine Fatima Estepa



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“We only hope that the DOJ panel will act with dispatch and file the necessary charges against those behind the multi-million peso garlic racket, particularly officials of the Agriculture department who have a hand in the scam,” said Gatchalian.


The NBI probe stemmed from a price spike in mid-2014 that showed the price of a kilo of garlic skyrocketing to as high as P300 a kilo.

Prices are currently within the ranges of P80 and P100 a kilo. Last month, the NBI filed criminal charges against several officials of the Bureau of Plant Industry for colluding with the garlic cartel in the issuance of import permits.


Gatchalian, a member of Nationalist People’s Coalition, urged Agriculture Secretary Proceso Alcala to take a leave of absence pending results of the NBI probe regarding his alleged link to the “garlic cartel” after a whistle-blower implicated him in garlic cartel last month.


In a sworn statement, Elizabeth “Lilybeth” Valenzuela, a garlic importer, said former BPI Clarito Barron had told importers that they must have Alcala’s blessings so they could be issued the import permits.



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“You should have connections to Alcala. If you have no blessings from Alcala, your company will not be issued an import permit,” Valenzuela quoted Barron as telling her and others seeking import permits. The NBI said Barron was paid P60,000 per import permit by garlic importers.


Valenzuela also pointed to Lilia Matabang Cruz, alias Leah Cruz, as the favored importer who gets the lion’s share of import permits for garlic and onion.


Cruz is the president of the Vegetables Importers Exporters and Vendors Association in the Philippines Inc. or VIEVA, which was the recipient of 2,469 plant quarantine clearance (import permit) for garlic from 2010 to 2014 out of the 3,652 permits that were issued by BPI.


Aside from being president of VIEVA, Cruz is also the chairperson of the National Onion Action Team or NOAT as well as the National Garlic Action Team or NGAT, which are both governed by a consultative body which is directly under the Department of Agriculture.


The National Agriculture and Fisheries Council and DA-High Value Crops Development Program serve as the secretariat of the NOAT and NGAT.



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“This is not the first time that allegations of corruption have been hurled against Secretary Alcala with several plunder and graft cases having been filed against him in the Ombudsman but he managed to keep his post,” Gatchalian said.


The administration lawmaker called on the DOJ panel to summon Alcala and let him explain why Leah Cruz was allowed to be the president of NOAT and NGAT which further strengthened her monopoly of the import permits for both garlic and onion.


“Is Leah Cruz that influential in the agriculture department that she practically corners the bulk of import permits?” he asked.


Gatchalian pointed out that it was because of Cruz’s control of the NOAT and NGAT and her being VIEVA president that she was able to monopolize the importation of garlic and onion into the country with the collusion of the BPI through its former director, Clarito Barron.


Barron was sacked from his position at the height of the NBI investigation into the spike on the prices of garlic during the middle of 2014.



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Alcala should be asked by the DOJ panel why after being sacked from BPI, Barron was transferred in July 2014 to the DA’s field operations office after agribusiness groups called for his resignation, he also said.


“There is a preponderance of circumstantial evidence pointing to Secretary Alcala’s possible link to the garlic racket which should be reason enough for him to be summoned by the DOJ panel and explain his side,” Gatchalian concluded. (R. Burgos)