The options: Scrape together $1800 to pay off a Miami shipping company. Hope the state steps in. Pray for last-minute divine intervention. Or say good-bye to 90 pairs of cowboy boots, 210 women's blouses, 102 pairs of men's pants, 80 women's dresses, 50 wallets, 183 men's shirts, three radios, and 13-inch, 19-inch, and 25-inch television sets -- all told, some 1400 pounds of stuff currently packed inside nine boxes stacked in a warehouse somewhere in Guatemala City.
The Miami company that arranged shipping of the goods, Sea-Air-Land International Services, is demanding $1800 for duties on the merchandise -- or else.
To the brothers, it feels like a shakedown.
Antonio, Diego, and Francisco Cosinero Cux paid $1710 on August 20 to an agent at King Express in Indiantown, says Antonio, to send the nine boxes to their father, Pedro, in Totonicapan, a town about 185 miles south of Guatemala City. In November, they forked over $1296 more to Sea-Air-Land. And now Sea-Air-Land wants another $1800? What began as a $1710 shipment has morphed into one costing $4806. "They told us we had to pay more money and more money," Antonio says. "It seems like they want to rob us."
Sea-Air-Land International President Gilberto Velasquez agrees that the brothers have been ripped off, but he says his company is not to blame. The agent who took the brothers' first payment of $1710 disappeared without ever paying Sea-Air-Land, Velasquez says, sitting in his small, cluttered office near Miami International Airport. "I think they should be glad we still have [the goods]," he adds.
Like hundreds of thousands of other immigrants from the Caribbean and Central America, the Cosineros came to the United States for one purpose: to help support their families back home. They regularly send money and goods to Guatemala using little-regulated shipping and money-wiring companies. When the brothers tried to send the nine boxes of merchandise to their father this past August, they entered a morass of disappearing agents, vanishing payments, increasing charges, special deals, and conflicting explanations. Their merchandise still hasn't been delivered, and the brothers seemingly have nowhere to turn for help.
The Cosineros live in a garage converted into a studio apartment on Okeechobee Road in Indiantown that they share with another Guatemalan man. The apartment feels more garage than living quarters with its unfinished cement flooring, cement walls, and two small windows that let in little air or light. Five single beds crammed inside take up most of the space. Two calendars with pictures of the Virgin Mary decorate a wall above a long bureau. Some of the merchandise that the brothers bought but didn't ship is scattered around, including an electronic keyboard, a pink toy guitar, a stereo cassette player, and some stuffed animals. The rent is cheap -- $400 a month. Every 15 days or so, they telephone their father in Totonicapan by calling a nearby shopkeeper, whose place is near the family home. Their social lives consist of attending church. Their obsession is to save money. If he is frugal, Antonio can hoard about $150 a week, he says.
Antonio, the eldest of the brothers at 30 years of age, recently invited a reporter into his home. Open and talkative, he said he makes about $50 a day working for a landscaping company. Diego, who is 24 years old and works as an assistant to a construction contractor, had not yet come home from work. He also earns about $50 a day, Antonio reported. Francisco, who is 27, stood beside his brother with sad, heavy eyes cast down. He was still caked with dirt from his job as a day laborer. He brings home $41 a day.
In July, Antonio explained, the brothers believed they'd found an opportunity to boost their income. The owner of Tienda La Prima, a store on SW Warfield Boulevard in Indiantown, shut her business and offered to sell the stock for $4000. Antonio, Francisco, and Diego pooled their money and bought the goods. They planned to ship the lot home to their father. When he sold the merchandise, their father might double or triple the investment for the family.
At an Indiantown company, King Express, that the brothers used to send money and small packages home, a clerk named Manuel -- whom they knew from Totonicapan -- said he had a contact in Miami who could ship the goods cheaply and get them there in three to four weeks. "We trusted him because he was religious," Antonio says. Antonio says he doesn't remember Manuel's last name.
Manuel contacted a Miami man, Berni Danilo Lam, who said Sea-Air-Land International would send the boxes by ocean freighter for $1710. The brothers say that Lam is a partner in Sea-Air-Land. When New Times requested to speak to Lam at Sea-Air-Land, company president Velasquez first said he wasn't there, then said he no longer worked there, then said he never actually worked there but was an intermediary who is no longer involved in the shipping business. Attempts to reach Lam at his Miami home were unsuccessful.
On August 20, the brothers paid Manuel $1710 in cash and got a receipt from him saying the bill had been paid in full. That same day, Lam provided a second receipt and delivered the nine boxes to Sea-Air-Land. The company immediately shipped them out.
Oddly, Velasquez says neither he nor Lam had received payment. "We wanted to move [the boxes]," Velasquez says. "We do that all the time."
The brothers, meanwhile, called their father and told him to expect the delivery. When three months passed and the packages still hadn't arrived, Pedro questioned his sons by phone. "We said, "Don't worry, Dad; they will arrive,'" Antonio recalls. ""We know because we have receipts for everything. It's on its way.'" Then the brothers called Sea-Air-Land in November to find out what had happened.
By that time, Velasquez says, the boxes were in customs in Guatemala. And Manuel had returned to Guatemala without paying Lam or Sea-Air-Land the $1710, Velasquez says. "Manuel is the bad guy here," Velasquez remarks. "Everybody has to go against Manuel. But we can't get anyone in Guatemala to go after him. They just don't care." Velasquez says he doesn't know Manuel's last name either.
Acknowledging that the brothers had been victimized, Velasquez says he offered them a deal in early November. If they paid him $1296 for shipping, he would use the money to pay the duties. Once the packages got through customs, the brothers would reimburse him.
Antonio contradicts Velasquez. He says the brothers were told the $1296 was for additional taxes. The Cosineros pooled $700 in savings and borrowed money from some friends and paid Velasquez on November 10, again in cash. "My brother Diego already had a heartache that all the money was lost," Antonio recalls.
Two more months went by, and still no boxes.
In January, the brothers again called Sea-Air-Land. Velasquez told them the duties came to $1800. If the brothers paid that sum, Pedro could have the boxes. Velasquez gave New Times a copy of a document from Guatemala dated November 11 that shows $1800 in taxes due. In a letter dated January 25, Velasquez gave the Cosineros until February 28 to pay the charges. But the brothers say they have no more money.
Antonio says the brothers thought about going to the police but decided against it. "We don't have papers," he explains.
A friend suggested they speak to Ana Maria Iznaga, an outreach worker at Holy Cross Social Services in Indiantown. Iznaga helped Francisco fill out a complaint with the State Division of Consumer Services on January 28. In it, Francisco, who can neither read nor write, says the brothers were victimized because they are in the country illegally. "We believe this is the reason these men are taking advantage of us," the complaint says, "and who knows how many more, thinking we would be afraid to seek help for this injustice."
But don't expect the state to swoop in and solve the problem. Terence McElroy, a spokesman for the Florida Division of Consumer Services, says the state does not regulate the shipping industry. It will attempt to mediate. But if the company doesn't respond, McElroy says, the state has no authority to force a resolution.
During a recent interview, Velasquez offered to drop the duty fees from $1800 to $1600. The Sea-Air-Land president also offered to let Pedro take two boxes containing the cowboy boots so that he can sell them to pay the duty fees. Velasquez says he will hold the goods for another month and not charge storage. If that isn't acceptable, he offered to sell the merchandise for $4000 and reimburse the brothers for the difference. "I know people right now who would buy it," he says.
The brothers now fear their hard-earned savings have vaporized. "To us that are not educated, it's like everything wants to eat us alive," Antonio says.