Off the Beaten Path: My Final Day in the Aduanas

At dinner on Wednesday night, I suggested to the group that Thursday might be the day I would need to get angry.  "Really?" someone said, "for me that would have been on Monday."  Pastor Conchi and I had managed to keep our focus, to support each other with patience.  Yet, I think we were both heading into Thursday with the idea that well-placed anger might earn us some justice.

We arrived at the yellow gate in Ilopango a full 20 minutes before it opened.  Conchi and I spotted a woman as she got off of the bus - one of the women who works in the customs office, behind one of the four service windows.  Conchi nodded toward me.  I , wearing my very awesome aqua scrubs and lucky Lutheran cross, casually walked over to the woman and said, "Buenos dias."  She responded, with a somewhat surprised look on her face, "You are back again?"  I gave her the 3-minute version of our story, hoping she would have mercy on us once we were seated in the white plastic chairs beneath her window.

It is somewhat fascinating to watch the container trucks arrive in Ilopango.  As they turn into the road that leads to the yellow gate, the drivers pause long enough to let their GWG (Guys With Guns) hop out (riding "shot-gun" literally means riding with a shotgun).  These guys are clearly rented, probably somewhere in Honduras or Guatemala to ensure safe overland travel.  As soon as their boots hit the pavement these GWG's are on their cell phones making arrangements for their next jobs.

The guard house opened and I went in to fill out the paperwork.  Yes, I am now a pro at this and do not even need a Salvadoran to convince my guardhouse friends that I should be allowed in.  They handed me 3 ID badges and in we went.  Pastor Conchi and I sat in our favorite second row seats at 7:30 AM.  The sign says, "We serve the public from 7:30 AM to 3:30 PM."  The only window with a person behind it was the one with the woman we greeted outside at the gate.  She looked like she wanted to help us, but apparently she needed some kind of permission.  The other window staff arrived.  One put on her make-up.  The guy went to the restroom.  The window boss has a little office to the side.  He looked at us nervously and decided to button up his shirt and put on a tie.  The woman who met us at the gate called us up and took all of our paperwork.  We sat back down and waited.  One hour passed.  Conchi said, "We are making a protest."  "Yes," I said, "Let's pray."  We held our lucky Lutheran crosses in our hands and prayed not in secret.  Necktie guy got more nervous.  The Julia of the Aduanas walked around behind the windows and checked out the situation.  Necktie guy came out to check on us and told us it would only be a few more minutes until the signatures were ready.

At 9:00 AM we received signatures on the amended franquicia.  I boldly walked into the inner office and thanked the Julia of the Aduanas.  "May it go well with you,"  I said.  "God bless you," she said.  I wanted to hug her, and I know she felt it too, but that is not allowed in the aduanas.

Random photo on the road to the airport.
After a while, I started taking photos
so I would have something to show
for the Mission of Healing.
We were giddy and ran to the van.  Off to the airport!  On the way, we stopped in Olocuilta for pupusas.  We were not about to spend another day without food.  This time, we would head off to to the cargo terminal well fed and with full bottles of water.  We arrived at the same waiting area as before, only this time the GWG would not let me in.  I watched Conchi walk right past the secretary window, right past the labyrinth of plastic chairs, and right up to the final window.  She had to come and get some money from me.  It cost us $40 for the privilege of storing our luggage in the aduanas.  She got the signatures and by 10:30 am we walked across the loading dock to the security door.  "Wait here."

The customs warehouse is located near the taxi-ways for the cargo planes.  Airplane noise and airplane fumes are plentiful.  All around the warehouse are cane fields, and on that day, burning cane fields.  Little charred pieces of burnt leaves floated through the air, landing on everything in site.  Our eyes stung from the smoke.  We were called inside, and surrendered our documents as well as our backpacks, water bottles and jewelry.  Pastor Conchi said she never takes off her pastor cross, but they made her take that off too.  The inside was open to the outside, but with the added feature of a hot metal roof.  We were told to ask for Victor.

We found some old broken chairs near a ratty old desk.  Our precious papers were piled onto the desk with about a dozen other paper piles.  Everything we touched was black with soot.  Beyond the "reviewing area" where we were stood rows and rows of shelves with pallets and boxes piled high.  Forklifts whizzed around like crazy, and there was plenty of evidence that they periodically pierced walls and other vehicles.  There were a lot of security guys.  There was a row of about 10 service windows but no one was at any of them.  A man showed up at the desk every now and then to help people process their papers.  We had to wait for Victor at window #8.  He was out at a meeting.

While we watched for our stuff to be delivered to the reviewing area, we made some friends.  Most people had shipped boxes of stuff via air freight.  Some had had their luggage seized like us.  We learned about the process:  the forklift drops off your stuff; you unload it onto dirty tarps, officials pick through it and weigh everything, you pay taxes on the stuff they tell you is taxed; you stuff it all back into the boxes or bags; they take it away until you come back with the money.  Because we had a franquicia we were not expected to pay taxes, but needed to verify the contents of our luggage.

Victor went to lunch.

We watched all of our warehouse friends go through the process.  A grandmother watched as her pots and pans, toys for grandchildren, clothes and shoes were dumped onto tarps.  A young mother watched as baby clothes and blankets were dumped onto the floor.   It was humiliating and disrespectful.  A couple of guys with small businesses were accustomed to the routine.  New clothing is taxed.  Used clothing is taxed.  Shoes are taxed.  "This is the new El Salvador," they said, "tax everything so no one can make a living."

Our suitcases were delivered.  Victor appeared.  He was about to leave again.  "Hey, we have been waiting for more than 3 hours.  When are you going to get to us?"
"I have other work to do first," he said.
"But you are the only one who can process medications?" I inquired.
"Yes."  He left.

At this point the security guy who was guarding our backpacks became our friend.  "Can we drink some water?" Conchi asked him.  "Sure."  We went into our backpacks, grabbed our really hot water, and drank some.  We didn't want to get this far just to keel over from heat exhaustion.

The security guy suggested we open up our suitcases to get a head start on unloading them.  He got us some tarps.  We unloaded everything onto the tarps, thankful that we had packed everything in big mattress pad zipper bags.  We hung out for a while by the security guy.  He was from the town where Conchi has a church.  He remembered the pastor who was there a long time ago, and was excited to here that she was there now.  He said he would go to church there sometime soon.  He said, "I really like the work that the Lutheran Church does in our country."  Huh, imagine that!

I was really hot and really tired, so I went and sat down on the floor in the middle of the medicine piles.  Conchi went and sat on a chair by our papers.  Victor walked in.  In a loud voice, in Spanish, I said, "I am going to make a report about this.  I am documenting every moment"  A few minutes later, a different guy, the narcotics agent,  asked if he could help us.  The desk guy and Conchi came over with the papers.  Victor said we had to unpack all the bags and line up each like item...1000 little bottles of eye drops all in a row.  "No," I said. "The inventories are done by suitcase.  This is all approved."  The narcotics guy agreed with me.  We weighed a few bags, and then packed it all up.  We collected our backpacks and walked back over to an office, carrying the papers which Victor had signed.  The office was air-conditioned.  Heavenly.

The magic number.
Conchi walked right up to the desk, ignoring the queue.  Victor had not completed the paperwork correctly.  We walked back across the loading dock, back to the waiting area.  Security guy could not believe it.  Luckily this was a 10-minute fix and we were back in the office, after making three copies of each of the forms which Victor had signed.  Then, finally, Conchi received...a plastic number!  "All that paperwork and it boils down to this!" she said.  I said, "Let's take a photo!"  The plastic number gave us permission to sit in line at the loading dock.  Two minutes after we received our plastic number, the office closed.

As we sat waiting for our number to be called, guess who walked by?  Victor!  He was all smiles.  "Everything OK?" he asked.
"Yes, we got our number."
"Great, God bless you!"

Conchi and I looked at each other and laughed.  Soon our number was called and we received our suitcases.  There they were:  15 absolutely filthy suitcases in a heap by the curb while we called for our van.  Our driver had parked outside of the area to avoid parking fees.  Soon all the aduanas workers were leaving.  Yes, we had spent a full 7 hours in the airport aduanas.  One of the departing officials stopped by to greet us.  We could not believe it:  it was the ornery woman from the very first day!  She had been so crabby and short with us that she had become somewhat legendary.  "Oh hello," she sang out.
"Good afternoon," said Conchi.
"I see you got your luggage.  You must have gotten the franquicia," stated the ornery woman.
"Yes, and we got the one for the group that is coming in a week," said Conchi.  "Would you like to see it?"  (Smart cookie - that Conchi!)
The woman checked it over.  "It looks to be in order.  See how much better it is to have things done on time?  If you come to the airport early with this, I can start the process so that when the delegation arrives they can just walk right in with their suitcases," she offered.
"Oh, thank you," said Conchi.  I gritted my teeth.
"Hey, do you have transportation?" asked the woman.
"Where are you headed?" she asked.
"San Salvador," we said.

And this is how the story ends:  two patient Lutherans, an aduanas lady formerly known as "ornery", two other familiar aduanas guys, and 15 suitcases full of medications stuffed into a van, driving into San Salvador as the sun sets in the western sky.


  1. fun huh? asyayayaya my days in aduanas en San Bartolo, you should here MY story out there in december 1994 trying to get in a container with 2 trucks, motorcycle and a small motorcycle that they took, and my personal possesions
    lotz easier and smoother now, I hope


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