MANILA, Philippines — Davao City Councilor Nilo “Small” Abellera finally showed up on Thursday at the Senate inquiry into the smuggling of 604 kilos of crystal meth, or “shabu,” into the country, admitting he met customs broker Mark Taguba in the southern city in January.
However, Abellera denied belonging to or knowing anything about the so-called “Davao group,” which supposedly facilitates the quick release of shipments by the Bureau of Customs, or receiving a P5-million “enrollment fee” from Taguba to avail of the group’s services.
He had also made the same denial in an affidavit he had submitted to the Senate when he failed to attend an earlier hearing because of health concerns.
But like Taguba, Abellera earned himself a scolding from Senator Richard Gordon, chairman of the Blue Ribbon committee, who was incredulous when the councilor, like the broker, claimed not to know the real identity of “Jack,” the supposed Davao group member who introduced them to each other.
Taguba had earlier identified Jack as the supposed “handler” of Davao Vice Mayor Paolo Duterte, based on text messages from Tita Nani, his contact with the Davao group.
Earlier, Gordon and Majority Leader Vicente Sotto III berated Taguba, saying his inability to say who Jack really was and to remember details of his meeting with Abellera, such as the name of the Davao restaurant where it took place, made his testimony suspect.
They also accused Taguba of trying to divert he inquiry away from the main issue, to determine how such a large volume of drugs, worth an estimated P6.4 billion, slipped into the country past the Bureau of Customs.
Sotto found it hard to believe that Taguba could agree to go to Davao with millions of pesos in cash to meet with people he did not know.
Taguba said “nagbakasakali ako (I took a chance)” because he was desperate to have a shipment that was the subject of a Customs alert released.
Asked if the person he called “Small” was in the session hall, Taguba walked over to Abellera and pointed to the councilor.
When Gordon questioned Abellera, he, too, confirmed that Taguba was the same person introduced to him by Jack during their meeting at the Casa de Amigos Restobar, which he said was some five kilometers from his home.
Abellera said Jack had called him asking to meet and claimed he agreed to because “I was doing nothing at the moment.”
This made Gordon ask if he was in the habit of agreeing to meet people he did not know.
Abellera explained that as a politician he meets people “casually” and that Jack must have been one of them. He also confirmed having Jack’s number in his phone’s contact list.
When he arrived at the restaurant, Abellera said he talked to Jack, who was sitting at a table with a companion.
Jack, he said, “told me a friend who was a customs broker was asking help to be introduced to Paolo Duterte” and claimed he refused the request.
It was at this point, he said, when Jack introduced him to Taguba.
But he added he left after five to 10 minutes.
Taguba, on the other hand, gave a different version of their meeting, saying it lasted for about an hour and insisting he had handed Abellera a blue La Coste bag containing the P5-million “enrollment fee” he had been instructed to bring to Davao by “Tita Nani,” his contact with the Davao group, supposedly to facilitate a meeting with Duterte.
The broker said when Abellera arrived at the meeting, Jack introduced him saying: “Mark, ito si Small, barkada ‘yan (Mark, this is Small, he’s part of the group).”
Abellera, said Taguba, ordered something to eat and told him: “Mark ‘pag pumasok ka sa amin dapat maging maayos kasa pagre-remit kasi ayaw naming masunog (Mark if you join us you must be prompt with your remittances because we don’t want to get burned).”
He said the councilor and Jack explained that they were having problems with another broker who was not properly handing over payments.
After the meeting broke out, Taguba said he carried the bag with the money outside and handed it to Abellera, who was in his parked vehicle.
Abellera, he said, promised to call him later. But when the call came, he was told that “Pulong,” which is Duterte’s nickname, was hesitant to meet because of his father, Ruben, a retired Customs policemen and former vice mayor of Piat, Cagayan, who supposedly caused trouble for a former Customs commissioner.
Taguba said he explained that his father was retired and that he was operating separately.
That night, Jack assured him he could fix things for another P2 million for “Pulong.”
Although he never met with Duterte, Taguba confirmed that the shipment he had sought the Davao group’s help for was quickly released and he continued to deal with them, handing over an average of P1 million a week for facilitating the release of shipments.
Duterte asked the National Bureau of Investigation to secure a copy of the CCTV footage at the time of the meeting between Taguba and Abellera from Casa de Amigos.