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VIDEO: Boats seized over $70 permit

Cruisers visiting Mexico for the Christmas holidays were taken aback when heavily armed Mexican marines, backing up tax agents from AGACE — the Mexican version of the IRS — swept through 12 marinas looking for violations of import tax regulations.

At last count, 338 yachts — mostly American and Canadian — valued in the tens of millions of dollars had been seized in what cruisers corresponding with Soundings say was bureaucratic overreach and failure to investigate thoroughly.

Owners of foreign cruising boats that visit Mexico must purchase a $70 Temporary Import Permit in lieu of paying an import tax required if the vessel stays in the country. They also must carry the boat’s documentation and customs clearance papers.

“Most of the 338 vessels that AGACE claimed were out of compliance were not out of compliance,” said cruiser Chuck Baier, co-author of “The Great Book of Anchorages.” “The problem was that the owners were not aboard and, thus, were not able to show auditors their Temporary Import Permits, the location where their HIN numbers were permanently engraved in the hulls, the engine serial numbers and so forth.

“Much of Mexican law is based on Napoleonic law, so if the boat owner wasn't around to show AGACE agents the necessary paperwork and numbers, the boat was assumed to be out of compliance and, thus, put in ‘precautionary embargo,’ ” he said.

After the initial raid, AGACE did a second check, usually with marina managers and their lawyers present, and found out that “almost every boat they had impounded was actually in compliance with Mexican law,” Baier said.

President Enrique Pena Nieto’s administration is cracking down on tax evasion of all kinds in a country where tax enforcement has been neglected. AGACE is a relatively new agency set up to carry out that policy.

Critics of the draconian enforcement of the TIP say it fails to take into account the importance of cruising tourism to Mexico’s economy. The latest reports are that 16 vessels have been released from precautionary embargo at the Opequimar Shipyard in Puerto Vallarta and a few others have been released from marinas in Acapulco after their owners or the marina provided certified copies of the required documents.