Why is customs charging for charity?

After years of donating used baseball equipment to Nicaragua’s less fortunate youth, customs suddenly wants to charge me for bringing in old balls, bats and gloves

I’ve been traveling to Nicaragua for about six years. On my first visit, I found that Nicaraguans like to play baseball. I also found that the adult team in Salinas-Limon had very rudimentary equipment and no uniforms. They played in an old field that was no longer being farmed. I dubbed it “The field of bad hops and broken dreams.”

That started my obsession with bringing in used baseball equipment donated from my sources in California. The program grew to include juvenile baseball leagues in Rivas. My friends here in California sponsored uniforms for nine teams in Rivas.

Been doing this for years (photo/ Steve Russell)

For the next several years, I brought down as much used baseball equipment as I could—up to 480 pounds worth of equipment (75 gloves, 60 pairs of cleats, 56 bats , 100-plus balls, and more) in two boxes every July.

For years, I have avoided “paying duty” on the donated equipment. But this year’s trip was different. I spent the usual five hours (of my vacation time) in a hot cage while a Nicaraguan customs agent evaluated each and every used glove, bat, cleat and ball. I noticed that he valued baseball caps at retail $5. (These are old hats that wouldn’t sell for more than $.50 in a thrift store).

By the time he was done pricing everything, I was handed a bill for $575 to bring the baseball donations into the country!
The official told me, “If I came to your country, I would be charged a duty for bringing things into America.”

My retort was, “If you were giving things to the poor kids in Miami or New York, customs would gladly let do so for free!”

I left without paying in hopes that I could find help from friends in Nicaragua. Three days later, I met with the DGA’s supervisor Jury Canteno, but was offered no relief. They did however reduce the “ransom” to $130.

After another two hours of negotiating, the ransom was paid and the boxes were rescued and the tedious task of distributing the equipment began.

I am writing this account to share with readers of The Nicaragua Dispatch in hope’s that someone will see the travesty and injustice of Nicaragua’s duty process. To “charge” anyone who is giving their time, effort and money out of their own pocket to help the less fortunate is inconceivable.

My good friend and an Nicaragua icon Everth Cabrera, the shortstop for the San Diego Padres, also mentioned he had a bad encounter with customs when he tried to bring equipment into Nicaragua. He won’t do so anymore—and that’s a true pity.

I hope that someone may see this and forward it to someone who may care and rectify these absurd customs policies.

I’ll end this as I end my letters for help raising baseball equipment for Nicaragua here in the USA: “Baseball is life and hope for these people.”

Steve Russell lives in southern California, where he is retired from the Los Angeles County Fire Department. He studied at California State University and played baseball through “semi-pro (D Ball)”. He has coached youth baseball for 30 years and is currently committed to the Nicaraguan Youth Baseball program. If anyone has advice, please email me at Redsoxcp@cox.net

  • Liz

    Steve, it IS awful that you were charged this fee. My organization has managed to avoid most (all, perhaps) fees when we haul stuff to our community center in Jinotega. We include a note on our letterhead that tells officials the items are for non-profit work — a separate listing for each bag/box we take into the county.

  • Aldo Gutierrez

    It is the Ortega’s family tax!!

  • http://www.delsurnewsonline.com Kelvin

    You did the best thing…you got the story printed on here. It will get some attention.

    On the other side of the coin, a lot of people use the “Donation” story to bring in stuff to Nicaragua that is not going to a charity. I hope they are all embarrassed when they read this story…you know who you are.

  • http://aol EL JUSTICIERO


  • Mark Oshinskie

    I have also brough balls into NIcaragua. The boys and the men love them.

  • Rachel Greenwood

    Hi Steve and welcome to the club. I work with a registered international non-profit and we are tax exempt. We send a truckload of materials down each year, everything from sports equipment to office furniture to medical supplies. We send them through another tax exempt non-profit, affiliated with the Catholic Church, and they have been shipping aid materials for over 20 years. It used to take about six weeks for a container to arrive and be released by the aduana. Now it takes about six months, while the officials at the aduana unpack and repack the entire container, and charge the church organization storage while they take their time about doing it.
    The Ortega government has done some very good things for the poor population we work with, free schooling, free school supplies, free medical care and more. But they seem to want to give other people who are helping a hard time.
    I don’t think there is a whole lot we can do about it because, as foreign residents, we are prohibited from interfering in the politics of the country. That does not seem to stop US government agencies from trying to influence the elections, but it makes it very hard for us, as individuals, to generate pressure to change this policy.

  • Mela Pellas

    Hell, next time tell customs that the baseball bats are for the Juventud Sandinista to break the heads and faces of those opossed to the divine pareja and the balls to throw at those that bad mouth the sayings of la Chamuka.

  • John Shepard

    The only way to combat this is to “Just Say No” . . .Find another country. Nicaragua is poor by choice; we all have to deal with the consequences of our decisions.

    Maybe things will change after the denial of the property waiver . . .

  • Michelle Ortega

    Get in contact with me the next time you are planning a trip and I can help you and walk you through a process so you won’t get taxed.
    I also have a shipping company that charges by the box and not weight if you want to ship it down.
    You can email me @ nica10@gmail.com and I’ll give you my US cell and my Nica cell

  • Mariam Zambrana

    I am sorry you had to go through that. I want to applaud your efforts to help the people of Nicaragua. I hope you find a way to continue to do so and not let this incident stop you.

  • Alex

    I have a brother who is brining me some old comics that I had purchased a while back. Does anyone know if they would charge him or give him a hard time at customs?

  • Rudy

    So let me get this straight, you brought down materials in bulk quantities and tried to subvert the process for transporting them across international borders and are kvetching about paying $130. Typical american arrogance. First of all Steve, your personal commitment to the communities you are bringing sports equipment to is laudable, however, your attitude toward the aduanas process is not. You have re-sellable items that you could be using to conduct non-tourist related acitvities as far as they know. There are proper channels to get items declared as donations, you should look into them. Or maybe you could also fundraise and purchase items in nica, that would help the local economies as well. And before you think i don;t have any experience going through what you have gone through – I have transported radio equipment, medicines and many other life saving and vital medical gear throughout Central America, South America and mexico and although it was all during my vacation time i recognized that if customs stopped me and harassed me, it was my fault for not pursuing the proper channels and attempting to go through with it all as a tourist. I think it is an important sign of respect to not feel indignant when you attempt to undermine another nation’s process, despite your best intentions. Or for that matter just stop with the charity – believe me, they will live without the toys, solidarity would be much better anyway and you would not have this crappy self righteous attitude toward the country. p.s. US CUSTOMS is much worse if you try bringing in stuff in large quantities as a foreign tourist. Believe me it is.

    • Juan

      Pray for a God fearing “Aduana” he will see the joy that these items will bring to the children of God. If not, then perhaps the Willy May Foundation will take them for American children?

    • matt

      Amigo, you need to chill on your self righteousness… although Steve may be writing from a subjective vantage point, his intentions are true and seem to be honest. You could maybe have some empathy, rather than your “self righteous” bias. Read your note and notice your “been there done that” attitude. Chill amigo and realize that someone had a bad experience and was reaching out for help and knowledge… although possibly misguided and subjective in content, Steve is trying to find the proper channels. Why don’t you help him rather than hang on to your negativity. How would you accomplish what Steve wishes to accomplish? how about telling him how you brought what you believed to be important items to a culture in need. Rock on Steve and you to Rudy!