September 26, 2023

By: Dona Z. Pazzibugan, Nestor Corrales
8 mins ago

PRICEY ONIONS Customers buy white onions at a discounted price of P150 per kilo at the Kadiwa Store at the Department of Agriculture in Quezon City. —NIÑO JESUS ORBETA

President Marcos ordered on Tuesday an investigation of the smuggling of onion and other agricultural products into the country after a House hearing led by Marikina Rep. Stella Quimbo found evidence pointing to the existence of an onion cartel.

“I have just given instructions to the Department of Justice (DOJ) and the National Bureau of Investigation to initiate an investigation into the hoarding, smuggling [and] price fixing of agricultural commodities,” Mr. Marcos said in a video statement.

In reaction, the DOJ said it would coordinate with the Bureau of Customs and the Department of Agriculture (DA) to create a task force against agricultural smuggling, “along with a special team of prosecutors primarily focused on protecting the entire agricultural sector, not only the onion industry.”

It added that members of the task force would include those from the Office of the Prosecutor General headed by Chief State Prosecutor Richard Fadullon, and the NBI headed by Director Medardo de Lemos.

“The shared objective is clear: To dismantle these smuggling networks and ensure that those responsible are brought to justice,” the DOJ said.

Quoting Quimbo’s memorandum to the President, Presidential Communications Secretary Cheloy Velicaria Garafil said that “substantial evidence [had] been uncovered pointing to the existence of an onion cartel …”

Quimbo, chair of the House committee on agriculture and food, said the cartel, operating primarily through the Philippine VIEVA Group of Companies Inc. (PVGCI), was engaged in various activities, including farming, importation, local trading, warehousing and logistics.

Mr. Marcos said the findings “[were] sufficient grounds to initiate an investigation into what amounts to economic sabotage.”

Cartel operations

“And that is why we are going to be very, very strict about finding these people and making sure that they are brought to justice,” he added.

Garafil said the House hearings had highlighted the sharp increase in onion prices starting in July 2022, which was attributed to a perceived supply shortage.

But data from the DA’s Bureau of Plant Industry revealed only a modest shortage of approximately 7.56 percent in 2022, which could not justify the significant inflation rates reaching 87 percent in December of that year.

Quimbo told the President that responses from cold storage facility owners during the hearings also indicated an ample supply of onions during the period of price surges, which led to the examination of an alternative explanation—cartel activity.

During the hearings, Lilia or Lea Cruz, known as the “sibuyas queen,” denied involvement in onion importation, saying her participation was limited to trucking and assisting onion farmers.

But Quimbo said evidence during the hearings showed Cruz’s “heavy involvement in the onion industry.”

According to Quimbo, Cruz is the majority stockholder of PVGCI, which was established in 2012.

Garafil said that PVGCI, along with other major players in the onion industry, was implicated in cartel operations, including coordination of stock withdrawals and price-fixing at various stages. INQ

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