The House Committee on Agriculture and Food last week categorically declared that an onion cartel is “very much alive” in the country. The announcement came after the House body concluded its three-month probe into the ridiculous increase in onion prices last year. Through evil machinations, the price of red and white onions significantly spiked nationwide in 2022, reaching P700 per kilo in December from P100 six months earlier.
Marikina Rep. Stella Quimbo asked law enforcement agencies to break the onion cartel: “We are calling on the NBI, Philippine Competition Commission, and the DA: Please work together to break the onion cartel. With the push of Speaker Martin Romualdez and the diligence of Chair Enverga, the committee worked hard to investigate and expose the onion cartel that brings torture to our farmers and people,” said Quimbo. (Read, “House probe confirms existence of cartel behind skyrocketing price of onions in 2022,” in the BusinessMirror, May 18, 2023).
“It did not help that many of the witnesses were not truthful with their testimonies. But the document does not lie. A careful scrutiny of numerous public documents, including General Information Sheets, registries of the Bureau of Plant Industry and the Department of Trade and Industry; the income statements submitted to the SEC and the Committee, and the inventory reports submitted to the Committee led me to the conclusion that the onion cartel is very much alive in our country,” said Quimbo.
According to Quimbo, one Leah Cruz is allegedly the “reigning undisputed onion queen.” The solon added: “Leah Cruz operates the biggest onion cartel in the country. She does this through a SEC registered corporation called Philippine VIEVA Corporation. This was created at the time when she was first tagged as ‘sibuyas queen’ in a series of news reports in 2012. She is the effective majority owner of the company.”
Quimbo said three companies are also found under Cruz—Yom Trading, La Reina, and Vegefru Producing Store—the largest importers of yellow onions in 2022, with a total volume of 5,445.66 metric tons (MT) or 68.74 percent of total imported volume. Their 2022 imports of red onions reached 7,648.81 MT or 41 percent of total imported volume, the lawmaker said.
Quimbo explained that PhilVIEVA is a fully integrated corporation that covers almost all operations in the onion industry—from farming, trading, cold storage and trucking.
The lawmaker said although Cruz has been blacklisted in the DA as an importer, she could allegedly import through her partners in PhilVIEVA. Aside from PhilVIEVA, Quimbo said they also use dummy corporations, which she said includes onion importers Vegefru Producing Store and Rosal Fruit and Vegetable Trading.
“They are out of PhilVIEVA, but they also belong to Leah Cruz. When we asked her in the hearing if she knew the owner of these dummy corporations, Leah Cruz bluntly said that she did not know who the owners were. But the documents don’t lie. Based on the public documents submitted by these corporations, we discovered that the registered telephone numbers of these corporations are identical to the phone numbers of Ms. Lea Cruz’s office. How is PhilVIEVA being used to increase onion prices? To be able to manipulate the price, you must have control of a lot of supply of onions. This is where PhilVIEVA’s power comes from,” said Quimbo.
Despite all the issues on smuggling, hoarding, profiteering and agricultural cartels, no one has ever been convicted since the enactment of Republic Act (RA) 10845, Sen. Cynthia Villar said Thursday, as she pressed for the passage of a measure creating special courts against farm product smuggling. (Read, “Anti-agri smuggling courts pushed,” in the BusinessMirror, May 19, 2023).
Presiding over a Senate hearing of the Committee on Agriculture, Food, and Agrarian Reform on measures seeking to amend RA 10845 or the Anti-Agricultural Smuggling Law, Villar said the law was enacted for the purpose of protecting farmers and the local agricultural industry from smuggling. However, she lamented that “we could barely feel the positive impact of this law.”
Senator Villar is on the right track. It would do well for Congress to act on her proposals: Inclusion of acts of hoarding, profiteering, and cartel of agricultural products in the list of crimes involving economic sabotage, and the creation of an Anti-Agricultural Smuggling Task Force, Anti-Agricultural Smuggling Court, and a special team of prosecutors to assist the task force in the expeditious prosecution of cases. It’s about time we put economic saboteurs behind bars.