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Mexico quake relief: Many supplies are needed, but not used clothes

Donated goods pile up at a local Mexico earthquake quake relief drop-off site at the Lynwood offices of Autofin, a Mexico-based car dealership. The goods will be sent by rented truck to quake-affected parts of Mexico. Leslie Berestein Rojas/KPCC

Piles of donated goods covered the floor Wednesday in the Lynwood showroom of Autofin, a Mexico-based car dealership and real estate clearinghouse. But used clothing that are being donated for quake victims aren't going to make it because they aren't allowed through Mexican customs.

The donated items will be sent on rented trucks to some of the worst-affected parts of Mexico. The southern states of Oaxaca and Chiapas endured a devastating earthquake and aftershocks this month and another powerful quake struck Mexico City last week.

Autofin Manager Karla Angulo ticked off the items packed into bags and boxes: “Clothes, food, bottled water, all kinds of canned food, diapers...".

New clothes with tags are alright, she said. But the used clothes that people are most often dropping off won't reach Mexico. “They can’t bring used clothes or shoes," Angulo said of the delivery trucks. 

According to Mexican officials in Los Angeles, used clothes and shoes for distribution are not allowed into Mexico for public health reasons. Neither is rubbing alcohol, which is flammable, nor prescription drugs, said Adriana Argaiz, Mexico's community affairs consul in Los Angeles.

Argaiz said some would-be Good Samaritans attempting to truck in the wrong items have been stopped at the border.

"Many of them were carrying used clothing, and that is a no-no," Argaiz said. "Or they were carrying used shoes and, unfortunately, that cannot go into Mexico."

Other problems are bureaucratic: some may not have the necessary paperwork, although this can just be a letter that explains to customs officials what is bring brought into the country as donations.

Quake relief contributions will not be taxed, Argaiz said. Those bringing them in should avoid customs issues if they're prepared.

"Merchandise, or whatever they are donating, still has to be inspected, but they are trying to make it easier and faster," Argaiz said of Mexican officials.

Argaiz said the supplies most needed now are basic needs, such as toilet paper, diapers, baby formula, toothbrushes, and soap. Also needed are shelter items, including tents, inflatable mattresses and blankets. There is also a need for construction materials, she said.

Some groups are choosing to raise money instead of shipping items. Francisco Moreno of the Council of Mexican Federations, or COFEM, an umbrella group of Mexican hometown associations, said the group is seeking funds to buy and donate construction supplies to help rebuild homes in the hard-hit southern states of Oaxaca and Chiapas.

He said years ago after a hurricane, the group trucked relief supplies to Oaxaca, but were met with bureaucratic snags that delayed their delivery.

"We spent like a month trying to put everything in Mexico," Moreno said. "That is why we learned our lesson. This time we are just getting the money ... we think it is the best thing to do. Bring the money, see the problems in Mexico, then apply the resources." 

Autofin, which allows Mexican immigrants to purchase cars and property for family members back home, is working with other merchants in the Plaza Mexico shopping center on relief efforts. Once the supplies are collected in Lynwood, they will be trucked south, said Angulo. 

The used clothes that donors have dropped off but that can't go to Mexico will go to another use. 

"It will be taken to Goodwill, so we can make it into cash, and the cash will be taken back to Mexico so that they can purchase ... materials that will be used to reconstruct buildings," Angulo said.

The takeway for those seeking to donate relief items? Check what's accepted before you donate.

The Mexican consulate has a web page with tips on how to donate to the relief efforts.