Thursday, March 7, 2013

Preface to My Week in the Aduanas

Once upon a time, I spent a week in the aduanas.  This is the story of how it all began.  This is not the first time I have written about an experience in the aduanas (customs offices), but it is the first time I have been specifically asked by a Salvadoran friend to write a story for my blog.  That friend is Pastor Conchi, who led the latest Aduanas Adventure.

Over the past few years, Salvadoran officials have increased the requirements or at least their enforcement of the requirements for bringing medical supplies and medications into the country.  This, in itself, is not a bad thing.  For 13 years, we have worked with the Unidad de Salud (the Salvadoran healthcare system).  We bring quality medications with expiration dates at least 9 months beyond our trip date.  We have always had letters of certification that these items are destined for free distribution to patients who need them and were received both by our US churches and by the Salvadoran Lutheran Church as donations.

Three months prior to this year's missions, we prepared the entry documents in the same manner as last year.  We had letters in English and Spanish signed by our Bishop.  We prepared an inventory for each suitcase, listing medications with size and quantity, each item with a different expiration date listed separately.  We allowed three months for Pastor Conchi to obtain the franquicia - the packet of papers which would allow the items to enter the country as tax-exempt.  A couple of weeks later we got an email: "We need to put a cost for each line item on each suitcase inventory."  OK.  This might not seem like a big deal, but with all those tiny tubes of toothpaste and different bottles of different pill counts listed individually with different expiration dates, this was a pain.  We broke out the calculators and used our overall cost list and started dividing.  We sent the new lists.

Then another email: "We need to change botella to frasco."  Really?  We thought we did well just putting these lists into Spanish.  OK, change every "bottle" to "jar" and resend.  Next email:  "We need to list all of the active ingredients."  OK, so we thought we had done that, but apparently customs needed EVERY ingredient on the vitamin bottle labels, not just "multi-vitamins."  Lots of fun typing: resend.  Next email:  "We need a separate donation letter from the Bishop for each suitcase."  New letters: resend.  Yet another email:  "We need to put a total down for each suitcase's value."  Seriously?  Can't you add that?  Apparently not: resend.

So, we were annoyed on our end.  What we did not realize at the time was that each of these emails was preceded by a series of visits to the President House, the customs offices in Ilopango and a visit to the airport by Pastor Conchi.  At different points in her journey, somebody at some office window gave her a new instruction.

Well, we still had more than a month to get the franquicia.  Or so we thought.  Apparently every government official takes one, or two, or three weeks of vacation around the Christmas holidays. Delay.

Fast forward to our Advance Team arrival at the airport with a big pile of suitcases full of medications, and another big pile filled with kits we had assembled with first aid supplies, and a small pile of backpacks with our personal gear for two weeks or a month (for a couple of us) stuffed inside.  Pastor Conchi met us...without a franquicia.   Customs seized our suitcases.  A very ornery woman lectured us on the law and our lack of adequate preparation time and told us that all of the first aid stuff, the reading glasses and the toothbrushes were taxable items too.  This was new news for us.  A kinder guy (who has helped us in the past) let us carry in the first aid stuff without paying taxes.  We rummaged through the medicine suitcases to pick out our personal liquids which we could not carry on, valentines for kids, and anything else we could find that was not medicine.  We stuffed it into the first aid suitcases and our pockets.  We paid taxes on the glasses.  We left. It was Wednesday.

On Thursday, while participating in pre-mission meetings we awaited a phone call letting us know the franquicia was ready.  No call.  On Friday we received word that the franquicia  was in the President's House to be signed.  At noon Pastor Conchi (with no franquicia in hand) and I headed off to the airport to meet two more team members.  The good news is security gave me a tag to get in.  The bad news is three more suitcases headed off into "Aduanas Never Never Land."  The rest of the team would arrive on Saturday.  Sadly, we realized that the franquicia would not arrive before Monday - the first day of the Mission of Healing.  On the bright side, we had stored a quantity of medication from last year in the church warehouse and we had purchased all of the pain medication in El Salvador. We spent the weekend having fun with our sister church and welcoming the rest of our team (but not their luggage - some of which went to the aduanas and some was lost).  We bagged and labeled the medications we had.  As a holistic mission, we knew we could focus on spiritual healing, music, reflexology, HIV education, dental hygiene and natural medicine workshops, and fun activities for kids and adults.  We could start the mission without medications.

On Monday, we would begin the next phase of our Aduanas Adventures.

to be continued...



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