Hassle-free travel zone

This map shows the area of Sonora, shaded in green, where temporary vehicle import permits are not required for U.S.-registered vehicles.

People who travel by car from the U.S. to western Sonora, including the tourist destinations of Rocky Point, San Carlos and Bahia Kino, can enjoy the convenience of driving in a so-called “hassle-free zone,” where a temporary vehicle import permit is not required.

However, people driving to other destinations in northern Mexico, including eastern Sonora, need to make sure they have the necessary permits for their vehicle or they could face stiff consequences.

In June, Ramon Mena of Sierra Vista was driving to Bacoachi, Sonora, to attend a quinceañera when he stopped at a checkpoint in the Rio Sonora region south of Cananea. A Mexican official asked him for his vehicle permit, but he did not have one, so his 2002 Kia Sedona was confiscated. He still hasn’t gotten it back.

Mexican government documents state that in order for Mena to get his Kia back, he must pay about $8,500.

“I’m not going to pay it. The car is only worth a couple thousand dollars,” he said.

Mena said that after officers at the checkpoint south of Cananea learned he did not have a vehicle permit, they escorted him back to the border.

“At the border they took me to the Custom’s Office where I was introduced to their lawyer. He told me I had broken the law and I had to sign a stack of papers or they would detain me in Mexico,” he said.

“I felt I didn’t have any choice other than sign the papers even though I didn’t know what I was signing. I was told I could hire an attorney to try to get my car back, but was advised I probably would not get it back without paying an exorbitant price for it and attorney fees,” he added.

Mena said he wants to help prevent this problem from happening to someone else in the future. He thinks all vehicles with United States license plates should be stopped by Mexican officials at the Mexican ports of entry so drivers can be advised of the rules.

People need a temporary import permit in order to drive a U.S.-registered vehicle to most places in Mexico outside of a 20-30 kilometer border zone, including popular destinations such as the Rio Sonora region; the colonial town on Alamos, Sonora; or the Mata Ortiz pottery village near Casas Grandes, Chihuahua. The following documents are needed to obtain the permit: a tourist card, a passport, a credit card, a driver’s license and the vehicle’s registration.

Oscar de la Torre Amezcua, Mexican consul in Douglas, declined to comment on the specifics of Mena’s case. But he said he advises people to stop at a port of entry along the border and ask Mexican officials about any requirements, especially if they might travel beyond the “hassle-free zone.”

Similar case

In September 2009, James Villa and Raymond Cook learned a frustrating lesson about traveling in Sonora without the proper documentation.

Villa, of Huachuca City, was driving his father’s 1995 Nissan pickup, along with Cook, of Hereford. They were on their way to Bacoachi to celebrate the quinceañera of Villa’s cousin’s daughter when they stopped at the customs checkpoint south of Cananea.

In a 2009 interview, Villa said he had traveled several times in this region in the past and the officials always would let him through with no trouble. However, on this particular day, an official asked Villa for his vehicle permit. He did not have one, so officials seized the car.

Villa went to Naco, Sonora, a couple days later to try to resolve the situation with officials there, but he was not successful.

“They said I could either get a lawyer and fight it, or pay $1,100 in fines,” he said.

He was given a 10-day period to make a decision. He decided the Nissan wasn’t worth saving.

Villa said he thinks the customs officials overreacted by seizing the vehicle. Instead, he said, they should have told him to turn around and get a permit.

Speaking for a story published Oct. 21, 2009 in the Sierra Vista Herald, Villa said he wants to use the outcome of his experience to let others be aware of the consequences of not getting a vehicle permit.

“Basically, I am not crying about it. We just want to warn somebody else,” he said.