Waiting for Instructions
Roatan Customs has been in transition mode for the past five months. While businesses and individuals are frustrated by lack of flexibility and always-changing officials, the transition to custom’s duty-free structure might take just as long.

June 1st, 2007
by Thomas Tomczyk


Emiliana Colon Avila (secreatary with 15 years veteran), Gabriela Bu (Roatan Customs Administrador), Karla Lainez (Roatan Customs sub-adminstrator).

Emiliana Colon Avila (secreatary with 15 years veteran), Gabriela Bu (Roatan Customs Administrador), Karla Lainez (Roatan Customs sub-adminstrator).

Gabriela Bu and Karla Lainez are two new faces at the Roatan customs, which has seen a lot of changes in the past five months. After Larry McLaughlin was replaced at his post in November 2006, Roatan customs saw four interim customs chiefs. None of them took the appropriate exams specific for Bay Islands, and none expected to stay there very long. This is about to change, as Roatan Customs Administrator Bu is qualified and expected to stay on the island for at least one year.

The last four months were a rude awakening to island businesses and individuals who ended up paying through their noses for items they used to import duty-free or at minimal costs. “I had to pay $1,100 duty on a set of solar batteries that cost me $3,000,” said Karl Stanley, owner of Deep Water Submarine in West End. “A year ago I was told that Honduras supports solar energy and there are no duties for these items.”

Even though boats in transit typically receive a waiver from customs fees, recently this policy seemed to have been ignored, resulting in the Honduran treasury receiving extra income. In one such case in April, Mola-Mola, a 35-foot German registered catamaran ended up paying $600 to get their $3,000 worth of boat parts. Mola-Mola was required to set up an RTN number in La Ceiba, pay for a broker and pay 12% duty on solar panels and compressor parts imported from the US during her three-month stay in Brick Bay and Honduras. “We actually ended up paying duty not only on the parts but also on the US sales taxes and shipping,” said Ursula Becker, owner of the boat. This was in sharp contrast to the last time Becker imported boat engine parts to Roatan in 2005 and didn’t have to pay any fees.

The recent hard-line attitude of the Roatan customs officers came from their inexperience in dealing with situations in an international seaport and tourist destination and from not knowing the nature of the businesses clearing customs. “They didn’t know everyone here like I did. They had to do everything by the book,” says Larry McLaughlin, who was a Maduro presidency appointment and served as the Customs Chief for four-and-a-half years.

In Honduras customs and immigration work closely together; the appointments to customs offices are political and the immigration posts are not. A competent immigration appointment can stay through different political administrations.

With the expected entry of the department into the Freeport status, the changes at the customs offices are not over. According to Bu, the ZOLITUR commission has to submit the proposal of the bylaws affecting the customs for review and approval by the Armando Sarmiento, Honduran chief of customs. The back and forth process could take weeks if not longer; but without approved guidelines Roatan customs office will not change its procedures or fee structures. Everyone anxious to take advantage of their business’ duty free import status will just have to wait.

Bu expects that the amount of paperwork associated with importing goods will stay the same while the amount of work for aduana will increase. “We will have to be more vigilant to look for those trying to abuse the system,” said Bu.

There are currently 11 customs employees on Roatan, and the customs office on Guanaja, with two officers, was recently closed. There are four international shipping agents in the Bay Islands: Island Shipping, Naviera Hybur, Jackson Shipping and Caribbean. To handle the paperwork associated with importing high value goods, the island has five customs brokers. For the time being only a ‘dispensa letter’ will exclude an organization from bringing in goods tax free. The customs fees begin at 12% of the value of goods shipped and, depending on the type of goods and the recipient, go up to 15%, 27% and 37%. [/private]

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