Toys collected for donation mission
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A group of smugglers huddled in a prayer circle a couple weeks ago to ask God for help crossing into Mexico.

“We prayed for [aduanas, Mexican customs officials] to turn a blind eye when we crossed,” said Ruben Torres.

Torres says his nonprofit organization has been helping the needy in San Diego and Tijuana for the past seven years.

On the Servicio de Administración Tributaria website it lists the limitations on merchandise that can be brought into Mexico. It states that five toys are allowed to be imported; also that additional merchandise can be imported tax-free, as long as a receipt of purchase is shown to the inspector and the total value is less than the amount allowed.

During this time of the year the value of merchandise that can be imported tax-free is $500 per load; after January 8, 2017, the threshold reverts back to $300 per load.

“That [dollar amount allowed] is not enough,” said Torres. “Plus, we don’t have the receipts because everything is donated; the [Mexican customs] officer makes up whatever price that he wants. The last time we got charged $380 for five carloads of toys.”

Torres said that he haggled with the officers' “16 percent tax assessment” for an hour. The original price requested was the equivalent to $700. “Then we all had to pitch in,” Torres said. “We needed to get the toys to the kids that night — they were all waiting.”

On December 17 at approximately 9 a.m., Torres met with his caravan of toy-runners at the Las Americas Premium Outlets in San Ysidro. Just a week prior, he said his Love Thy Neighbor organization pulled in approximately 4000 new toys and clothes via donations by the same parking lot where they rendezvoused.

“This is where we need help, bro,” Torres said. “We need runners to help us cross the toys, clothes, blankets, and wheelchairs.”

Because their load was so big, they needed to strategize a method of crossing into Mexico without triggering the red lights to go to inspection — they also needed to “pray hard.”

“We had about 2500 toys, clothes, and supplies spread between seven vehicles,” Torres said.

Torres rolled in a GMC truck. At the same time, a couple of large SUVs, a car, and an additional truck driven by Julio Lapensee were in line to go across. Lapensee’s truck was loaded with food, blankets, pillows, clothes, and his three kids. After the prayer, the caravan headed into Mexico. All got the green light except for Lapensee.

“[Then,] I was directed to the aduanas,” Lapensee said.

They waited for about an hour and a half before the official requested that he remove the tarp covering the truck bed. The official said that they could not bring in used clothes — even to donate.

“At this point I was willing to forfeit the clothes and make sure we made our way to the orphanage with the much-needed food,” Lapensee said. “The official stated, ‘This is not a dump for you to dispose of your personal items here. You will have to wait and you will be escorted back to the U.S.'”

Lapensee returned to San Diego. The next morning he brought his kids and his mother and tried crossing again. This time they made it through to meet up with the caravan and hang out at the Orfanatorio Sonrisa De Angeles on Sunday.

Over the weekend, Torres made drop-offs to the New Jerusalem Church, which houses “approximately 120 Haitian refugees”; and Es por los Niños, which houses children living with HIV and AIDS.

“We are not sophisticated with tunnels and all that,” Torres said, “we do need more toy-runners though.”

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