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Cagayan execs urge new Ceza chief: probe Port Irene ‘skeletons’

BAYOMBONG, Nueva Vizcaya—Local leaders in Cagayan on Friday called on the newly-installed administrator of the Cagayan Economic Zone Authority (Ceza) to launch an “honest-to-goodness” investigation of supposed irregularities on the operations of its freeport in Santa Ana town.

Gov.  Manuel Mamba urged lawyer Raul Lambino, who took his oath as new Ceza administrator on Monday (July 24), to immediately order a probe in order “to stop all illegal activities and corruption perpetuated by the past administration”.

The governor said the new Ceza chief should reassess the viability of Port Irene as an international port, the operations of which, he said, have been marred by allegations of corruption.

“Billions of public funds have been poured into Port Irene, for which only a pittance was derived by government in the last 23 years of its existence, and for which transparency and accountability in its operation is seriously demanded,” Mamba said. 

Bloated

Port Irene is the main port of the CSEZFP in Casambalangan village in Santa Ana, which for several years became the hub of two of Ceza’s controversial industries: used car importation, and export of magnetite sand.

It is also the location of the P5-billion breakwater project, for which the late Senator Miriam Defensor Santiago raised red flags in a Senate expose for alleged overprice, having been constructed by a firm supposedly linked to Senator Juan Ponce Enrile. 

Enrile is the main author of Republic Act 7922, the law which created CEZA and declared inclusion of the entire Santa Ana town and two island territories of Aparri town within the economic zone. His daughter, Katrina Ponce-Enrile, sits as a director in the Ceza board.

In 2013, the sale of second-hand vehicles at the Cagayan freeport was stopped after the Bureau of Customs clamped down on the trade by refusing to process their release and registration, citing a Supreme Court ruling that earlier nullified an executive order that Ceza used as basis for the importation.

The shutdown has led to the eventual waste of about 900 second-hand vehicles imported from Japan and Korea, which until today are being eaten up by the elements at a five-hectare car depot in Casambalangan.

The shipping of magnetite sand, meanwhile, was halted in 2014 following the departure of several Chinese firms that were earlier given what critics described as “dubious” permits to extract blacksand from the coastal and riverbank communities of northern Cagayan.

Wasted

According to government records, Chinese firms shipped out more than 2.4 million tons of magnetite from Cagayan to China through Port Irene for a period of five years, from 2009 to 2014.

Two of its biggest licensees for its gambling operations, Eastern Hawaii Gaming and Leisure and Meridien Vista Gaming Corp., have been dragged in suits and investigations over alleged money laundering and illegal gambling operations.

Ceza-issued working visas have also been cited at a Senate investigation last year for their involvement in alleged human trafficking, economic sabotage and bribery charges against Chinese gambling operator Jack Lam.

“(The previous use of Port Irene) has been a waste of opportunity and government funds in its 23 years of existence. We have to look for a new alternative port that is more secure, and can allow the entry of bigger ships with international routes,” Mamba said.

Santa Ana Mayor Darwin Tobias, for his part, also said Lambino should first clean up the mess that was left behind by his predecessor, so as to “start with a clean slate”.

“He should be wary whom he trusts (within Ceza) because there are some people there who are behind all the anomalies that had hounded the agency for many years,” he said.

Tobias, who sits as a member of the Ceza board, expressed hope, however, of having “better” working relations with Lambino. 

Ceza and the Santa Ana government have perennially been at odds over conflicts of policies between officials, mainly between Tobias and Jose Mari Ponce, the former Ceza administrator and Lambino’s predecessor.

Things came to a head in 2013 when Ponce’s son lost to Tobias  in a hotly-contested mayoralty race.

Upon taking up his post, Lambino, in a press statement, announced his plans of repairing Port Irene, the dredging of its “heavily silted” seabed, and the construction of additional wharves “to expand its capacity”.

“As the President’s personal choice, I will lead by example and turn the (CSEZFP) into his vision of a vibrant economic growth center that is efficient and clean and free of corruption,” said Lambino, described as “a stalwart” of President Duterte’s party”, Partido Demokratiko Pilipino Lakas ng Bayan (PDP Laban).

He vowed to transform CSEZFP “into a bustling economic growth center and tourist destination and a major transshipment and logistics hub in Northern Luzon”.#

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