The Washington Post
Monday, March 26, 2001; Page B01

A Courier With Connections

For Salvadorans, the 'Viajero' Offers Vital Link to Loved Ones Back Home

By Sylvia Moreno
Washington Post Staff Writer

Nicolas Ferrufino is part mailman and part banker, part takeout service and part confidant.

He flies into town and opens for business for one week each month in the basement of a row house in the District's largest Latino neighborhood. There he delivers
chicken or cheese or a letter from El Salvador, then collects jeans or small appliances or cash to take back. Salvadoran immigrants call him a viajero, a traveler. But
his work is more that of an ambassador/entrepreneur.

The commercial and social connections to El Salvador that Ferrufino and those like him provide to the immigrant community are immeasurable. In a high-tech world
where political and economic changes have transformed an immigrant's relationship to home, Ferrufino is an anachronism. He is the neighbor who does business, a
modern version of the Pony Express, a direct link to home valued for his reliability and the personal relationships he has nurtured for more than a decade.

He is the link to El Salvador for people such as Oscar Fuentes, of Hyattsville, who immigrated to Washington 16 years ago. "I come here because my family goes to
his store in El Salvador," Fuentes said. "We know him, and we trust him."

Ferrufino is one of a small army of couriers who crisscross the skies between El Salvador and the United States to visit cities with large Salvadoran communities such
as Washington, New York, Los Angeles and Houston. These viajeros bring love notes stuffed into pale-blue envelopes to sweethearts here and take wads of
greenbacks back to families left behind in home villages.

They might bring a box stuffed with mom's grilled chicken to a lonely son or a fresh pot of mango spread to a granddaughter almost 1,900 miles from home. In turn,
Salvadoran immigrants send back Corn Flakes, CD players, soccer shoes or brand-new jeans and T-shirts. And -- most important -- money.

All of this activity is legal, according to U.S. Customs spokesman Pat Jones.

Business and Pleasure

In the Mount Pleasant apartment where Ferrufino sets up shop for a week -- while his wife tends his store back in San Miguel -- he's all business. He is friendly with
his customers and their families, but nothing passes through his hands without a fee.

Commerce, nevertheless, is punctuated by chitchat and reminiscences of home. Some of his customers sit a while and catch up on news: The earthquakes. The
introduction of the U.S. dollar as an official currency in El Salvador. Interest rates. What the father-in-law or the grandchild is up to. Politics -- Salvadoran, not

Ferrufino sits in a straight-backed metal chair at a small particleboard desk, the top of his balding head illuminated by a single fluorescent light. The desk is piled high
with envelopes that he will personally deliver. He keeps track of his accounts in a black ledger. He weighs packages, counts money and takes calls, all to the tune of
a stereo that plays Central American cumbias and Mexican rancheras in the background.

A typical week's commerce starts this way: A few men pull up some plastic chairs and the conversation begins. The hot topic: the devastating earthquakes that hit El
Salvador in January and February. "My friend, the ground is still shaking," the viajero says authoritatively. The stories unfold as the men conduct their business.

Roots in Civil War

Ferrufino and an undetermined number of independent couriers got their start during El Salvador's civil war, which ran from 1980 to 1992. The country's mail service
was virtually halted, and established money transfer businesses such as Gigante Express or Urgente Express -- Latin American versions of Western Union -- would
serve only urban areas. Delivering money to rural areas taken over by guerrillas or the Salvadoran armed forces was simply too dangerous.

Thousands of Salvadorans had fled the political turmoil and poverty, finding jobs in Washington and other urban areas in the United States to support the families they
left behind. But when the established businesses balked, they needed another way to get their earnings home.

"That created a niche of opportunity for viajeros who took the risk on themselves," said Sarah J. Mahler, an anthropologist at Florida International University who
studies migration from El Salvador.

"They would travel to rural communities and deliver envelopes with money," she said. "It developed along familial and kinship networks, and it was all based on

It still is.

"We know him, we trust him, and he's responsible," said Blanca Gutierrez, of the District. She arrived here from the province of La Union 11 years ago and has been
using Ferrufino's services ever since to stay in touch with her mother and to send back part of the money she and her sisters earn flipping hamburgers at a Wendy's in
Northeast Washington.

"He's leaving tomorrow, and by tomorrow night, my mother will have her money," Gutierrez said.

For Ferrufino, ferrying food and other goods, along with the letters and the money, started with a request here, another there. Now, that is just part of his service.
Every month, he brings in Salvadoran delicacies such as freshwater sardines or corn tamales. And he always brings in the hard, salty white cheese so many
immigrants love. The cheese has become such a part of the services of the independent couriers that it's known popularly as queso viajero -- traveling cheese.

The viajero business is so profitable -- especially in El Salvador, where the minimum wage yields less than $140 a month -- that some schoolteachers and even village
mayors take a few days off regularly to make courier runs to the United States.

U.S. Customs officials estimate that of every five passengers who arrive in Washington from El Salvador, one brings in the white cheese -- enough to fill up a 40-foot
truck weekly.

The problem comes when there is too much luggage to fit on a plane and perishables get left behind in the 80- or 90-degree heat of the San Salvador airport cargo
area. El Salvador's national airline, Grupo Taca, now refuses to deliver those bags to Washington on later flights, said Gloria Granillo, regional manager for Taca,
despite protests from some couriers who lose money when they lose their goods.

"It's one of our biggest problems . . . this cheese business," said Granillo, the regional manager for Grupo Taca, which operates daily nonstop service between Dulles
International Airport and San Salvador.

Changes and Precautions

Ferrufino says he is one of about seven couriers that he knows of who serve the 5,000-population town of Yayantique, in the southeastern corner of El Salvador,
about 102 miles from the capital, San Salvador. He estimates that at least 100 Salvadoran couriers travel back and forth to Washington alone.

Ferrufino's fees are customary, according to Mahler, the Florida International anthropologist who has studied the Salvadoran couriers: $2 a letter; $4 a pound for
packages; a 5 percent commission on money transfers, up to $1,000. More than $1,000, and the commission drops to 3 or 4 percent, depending on the total.
Cheese goes for $5 a pound -- cheaper, and fresher, than at the Latino grocery stores in the Washington area.

Ferrufino figures that he carries an average of $20,000 to $25,000 to families in Yayantique every month. That rises to an average of $30,000 to $35,000 during the
months of Christmas and Mother's Day.

In his dozen years as a courier, Ferrufino has seen some changes and has altered the way he does business. For instance, he says, the number of letters he delivers to
Washington has dropped to about 100 a month from 400 since cellular telephones were introduced in El Salvador.

And, he says, he has changed the way he carries money home. Starting last month, he posted a sign at the entrance of the Mount Pleasant apartment telling his
customers to deliver their cash to him in open envelopes so that he could deposit it in a bank branch inside the airport as soon as he arrived in San Salvador. Then
after the two-hour drive to San Miguel, he withdraws it and distributes it to the residents of Yayantique, who have driven or taken the bus nine miles to his store.

Why? Crime.

On Oct. 19, a viajera carrying money was robbed and killed after she got to San Miguel, he said. On Jan. 28, a courier -- a friend of his -- was assaulted and
robbed of $43,000 while traveling through the province of San Miguel. The guerrillas and the armed forces may have laid down their arms, but the life of a courier is
still risky.

"It's a dangerous business, being a viajero," Ferrufino said. "You have to be careful."

But for now, he will keep at it. The profits from his courier business have enabled him to buy a 30-seat bus that he hopes to use for tourist excursions to Guatemala
and other places. Already, he's thinking about what to bring from El Salvador when he returns to Washington at the end of March -- besides the white cheese.
Maybe some of the local fish, he says, that is so popular as a Lenten dish.

"I'll be back the 29th," Ferrufino reminds each of his customers as they leave after depositing the money and packages he will deliver to their relatives in El Salvador.
"Would you like to buy some cheese?"

"Have a good trip," says one. "See you then."

                                               © 2001