We’ve only interacted with Mexican customs (aside from personally at the airport) through brokers… FedEx’s brokers, UPS’s brokers, Mailboxes Etc’s brokers, the freight forwarder Expeditors, but also some independent brokers.

In terms of getting our shipments through, the results with each have been the same in the sense that you’ve really got to err on the side of being overly transparent (yet innocuous) and obviously within the bounds of commercial, duty and prohibited items guidelines. And even still some things might not get through. Having a broker is required by law in Mexico– only they can make customs declarations, so the point of whether to get one is moot; however, it’s worth emphasizing that from a practical standpoint, having a good broker is also required.

A good broker = one who will help you fill out your sender paperwork clearly and accurately; also, occasionally it becomes important for a broker to have solid relationships with customs officials at the entry point you ship to.

Note that I do not say «solid relationships» euphemistically. What I mean is, really, it helps if customs officials know, and even like, your broker, because it helps ensure they are listened to. Let me explain.

Mexico’s legal system has until recently been «guilty until proven innocent.» A corollary of this is that the «reasonable doubt» and «unreasonable search and seizure» are not the institutions in Mexico that they are in the US. Historically, an accused person is arrested and hopefully released on a sort of bail (amparo) as the case is being built up to charge him/her. That’s actually been reformed in the past couple of years, but it still hasn’t been implemented universally.

From a shipping standpoint, this way of doing things means that a customs officer can effectively detain your shipment for… whatever. Based on his good judgment or cautious outlook. (Not that this doesn’t also happen in the US, so I’ve heard!) Examples:

  • Trade show display posters/pop-ups, flagged for import fees of hundreds of dollars.
  • Bottles of maple syrup, leave-behind gifts from a Canadian government entity, held pending a letter of chemical content.
  • Samples of an illustrator’s work licensed for merchandising on temporary tattoos, flagged as prohibited due to possible therapeutic/medicinal nature– they are a chemical substance applied to the skin– and destroyed.
  • AV recording equipment detained and destroyed for having HS codes in common with certain surveillance applications that were at the time prohibited in Mexico.
  • A box of dominoes from a Barnes & Noble store in the US sent as a Christmas gift in their original, shrink-wrapped packaging, detained as suspicious and flagged for destruction.

All of these instances were legitimate detentions according to Mexican customs policy and policy interpretations. Furthermore, as an FYI, Mexican customs officials performing inspections are required to be observed/double-checked by a third party.

In the case of the dominoes, our broker intervened to have them returned to the US sender. He explained that the reason customs considered the dominoes suspicious is because they are associated with gambling and have been found to be concealing drug shipments in the past. Had he been consulted prior to sending, he told us, he would have advised labelling them «wooden blocks» or «table game» rather than «dominoes.» Furthermore, we can assume, if these shrink-wrapped dominoes were legitimately suspected of containing prohibited substances, they should have been destroyed. They were not destroyed, but rather released and returned to the same United States port they were shipped from for pick-up, probably because our broker was able to communicate effectively with the customs office holding them.

(Note: we were ultimately glad the dominoes were sent back to the US; had they not been, we would have been charged an 80-120% duty because they were made in China. Games/toys and other specific categories of items made in China are penalized in Mexico on anti-dumping grounds. Our broker would have told us that, too, if we had asked him.)

Your importer (ie, your customer, distributor, or subsidiary) in Mexico is in charge of hiring your customs broker, as the recipient is responsible for the item entering the country. If you ship through a commercial logistics service (any of the companies I mentioned at the top of this post), they have their own brokers who handle standard declarations and entry for you. If you are shipping through one of them, definitely call them if you would like help filling out your forms. FedEx has really well-developed information on their website (FedEx Mexico country profile). However, if you plan on sending lots of domino shipments, or certain classes of AV equipment, you might want to think about finding your own dedicated, experienced broker based near the entry point you’ll be using.

Here’s a basic overview we prepared on importing into Mexico.