SAN MIGUEL, El Salvador - On Thursdays, she brings out the knife. The dull steak blade is part of an unimpressive array of tools - nose, fingers, plastic tub, afternoon sun - that Angela Maritza Carballo uses to detect contraband in packages being sent to the United States from this smallest of Central American countries.
She is the sole inspector for Umana Express, one of hundreds of mom-and-pop courier services that have linked families in El Salvador and the United States for more than 20 years. Such services operate via commercial passenger airlines, rapidly shuttling home-cooked meals, nostalgia items, clothes and money across international borders in duffel bags and suitcases.
"I have never found anything illegal," she says, ignoring the endangered green lizard that she discovered moments before, roasted and foil-wrapped in a shoebox. "But, I still like to check."
Every Friday, a Umana employee flies from San Salvador to Washington Dulles International Airport with stuffed suitcases, in total reaching a thousand new and repeat clients in Maryland, Virginia and Washington. There also are monthly flights to Houston and Los Angeles.
With 10 branch offices in a country smaller than Massachusetts and a new one opening in the capital, Umana Express is one of the largest suitcase courier services in El Salvador. It is a competitive player in a niche market expanding to meet the growing demands of fractured families.
This month, an estimated 4,000 suitcase couriers, who serve all 50 states, gained legal recognition from the Salvadoran government. The new legislation, which changes tax formulas and documentation requirements for the couriers, is the first such law in Latin America. However, there is no reciprocal law to recognize them in the United States.
"We're not importers. We're not tourists," says Mario Gilberto Umana, owner of Umana Express and president of ANGEC (Asociacion Nacional de Gestores de Encomiendas y Cultura), the national association of managers of parcels and culture. "We're in-between."
Because 60 percent to 70 percent of the suitcase couriers travel to the United States on tourist visas, which do not permit their holders to work and might be revoked at any time, the new Salvadoran law does not afford stability to the unique service industry. However, the suitcase couriers view it as an important - albeit mostly symbolic - step in recognizing the importance of their role in maintaining social, cultural and economic ties among disjointed families.
"There are large [international courier] services, but people prefer us because they can ask us, 'Are the cows fat? How many chickens does my aunt have? Does my mom's house need more paint?'" says Herberth Romero, a suitcase courier who serves communities in Frederick and Baltimore. "If someone can't answer those questions, they're not a good service."
While El Salvador has more than 6 million people, an estimated 2 million more live in the United States. This figure includes nearly 290,000 Salvadorans who have temporary protected status, a provisional immigration status granted to citizens fleeing armed conflicts or natural disasters in their countries of origin and undocumented immigrants. Such immigrants are not at liberty to visit their families in El Salvador.
Various systems for sustaining familial relationships have grown into competitive markets. The suitcase couriers, who can deliver mom's roasted chicken and tamales the next day for $4 a pound, are among the quickest, cheapest means of sending goods.
Nostalgia foods make up the bulk of the suitcase shipments to the States. On a recent Thursday, a suitcase courier on her way to Dallas had 200 pieces of Pollo Campero, a riotously popular Guatemalan fried chicken joint, in her duffel bag. During a stopover in Atlanta, the baggage carousel was littered with bricks of hard, white cheese - because another's suitcase had burst at the seams.
The speed of a suitcase courier delivery, which is essential for the delivery of home-cooked meals and other perishable goods, distinguishes it from another emerging Central American courier service system, one rooted in the United States. Fifteen days to six weeks are required to deliver large boxes to El Salvador via cargo container ships.
The advantage of these large boxes, which contain anything from bundles of clothing to refrigerators and stoves, is that cost of delivery is based on box dimensions, not weight. Aguilar Express, an 18-year-old Los Angeles-based shipping business that reaches Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras, charges $225 to $300 to ship and deliver a washing machine.
Around MacArthur Park in Los Angeles, home to the largest Salvadoran-American community in the country, shipping businesses like Aguilar Express are on every block. Many have sprung up within the past five years, occupying peculiar spaces in the cramped, bustling street markets. One is in the corner of a pet store that peddles goldfish, parakeets and women's beauty products. Another occupies a back counter in a shoe store specializing in glossy orange and crimson cowboy boots.
However, the suitcase couriers are reaching an increasing number of clients throughout El Salvador.
On a recent afternoon, three girls tumbled into the main office of Umana Express in San Miguel, giggling and bouncing in spite of the punishing winter heat. Adriana Yamileth Jimenez Umana, 12, carried a box of hard Salvadoran crackers and cookies to send to her mother, who cleans offices late at night in Washington.
She tucked a scrap of wrapping paper into the box for her absent mother, whom she sends packages of medicines and cheeses three times each month. "For you ... with Love," it read in generic, greeting card script, printed along with images of red rose bouquets. The glossy gift paper ended up in the trash during the inspection process, but the sentiment was intact when Rosa Delmi Umana, 37, received the box the next day.
"I was happy because it was a gift from them, from there. They sent it with love," said the mother, who has not seen Adriana Yamileth or her 8-year-old daughter for three years. The family talks over the phone each Saturday afternoon or evening.
In a shaded backroom of the suitcase courier service, the inspector plunged her dull knife into a cheese brick, again and again, probing for concealed items. The salty, pale cheese is what Salvadorans in the States want most often from home.
It is the taste of nostalgia, if nothing else.
"It's hard to get used to life there," said Jose Efrain RodrM-mguez Zavala, 22, who sends 2 pounds worth to his younger sister in Alexandria, Va., every two months. "She remembers life in El Salvador when she tastes the cheese."