How to Ruin Your Next Business Trip “routine” medication taken abroad could lead to big legal trouble

By Hollie McKay

It should have been just an ordinary work trip. Until it wasn’t.

In March, a prominent Houston-based engineer jetted off to Mexico – a country he frequents for work – and later returned to the United States, only to discover his bag was left behind in Mexico City. Courier service DHL subsequently shipped back the lost luggage, only for U.S. customs to learn that the pain medication inside was not adequately characterized for “personal use.” On a technicality, U.S. officials sent the bag back to Mexico and requested that the prescriptions be classified correctly.

And that is where the nightmare really took hold. A doctor had prescribed the medication, oxycodone and tramadol, many months earlier when the engineer was suffering from acute back pain. However, he had long stopped using the drugs – and forgot that they were even in his suitcase. Nonetheless, the bag return prompted the involvement of Mexican customs authorities as the substances are strictly controlled within Mexico’s borders. As the prescriptions did not accompany the pharmaceuticals, the engineer received a notice from the Mexican equivalent of the Attorney General and a summons to appear at a court hearing in person.

“There were no criminal charges at this point, only potential criminal charges,” explains Diego Andrade, a BALL PLLC lawyer focusing on international trade, arbitration, and public tenders in Mexico and Latin America, who is handling the ongoing case on behalf of the engineer. “If (the client) had not shown up, that could have been considered a bad faith action. At that point, they can open an arrest warrant. And then there’s no way he can travel to Mexico. So, we wanted to avoid that scenario.”

After much stress, legal navigation and hunting down doctor’s letters, the engineer appeared at the hearing in May. Meanwhile, the Andrade team continues the effort to close the file under the guise that there was no legal reason to prosecute the individual given the substance was in possession for lawful personal use and successfully secure the return of his belongings.

“It is a very cost-inefficient ordeal,” Andrade stresses.

And could easily and innocently happen to almost anyone.

While Mexico remains a top destination for many U.S. business travelers, few of them (or their legal departments) realize it is illegal to take many seemingly innocuous prescriptions and routine over-the-counter medicines south of the border, including medications containing pseudoephedrine such as Sudafed or Vicks inhalers.

By law, passengers traveling with personal-use medications must report and present detailed medical prescriptions to customs authorities at the port of entry with Spanish translation in transparent bags and placed in hand luggage. Border authorities will only grant the traveler entry if the prescription or letter specifies the amount of substance necessary for the patient during their stay and the amount presented matches the daily dose requirements.

Nonetheless, it isn’t just medicines that one ought to be mindful of in advance of the trip.

“I normally travel with the same backpack, the same backpack I have used for the last ten years, and my things just stay in there permanently,” notes Victor Yezhov, a Houston-based attorney and procurement management professional for BALL PLLC. “But one time, headed for Mexico, I decided to go with a different backpack – and just before leaving, looked inside and found some empty shells, a couple of rounds [of ammunition] and a CC mag.”

This could have spelled disaster in Mexico, a nation with vehemently strict gun control laws. It could land one in prison within seconds and a long legal road ahead in pursuing freedom.

Yet Mexico is hardly alone in its strict stance against such items, medications and supplements that often catch happy-go-lucky visitors off-guard. Transporting the likes of birth control to Benadryl to protein powder could land you in hot water in some countries. Several years ago, an American Toyota executive spent three weeks behind bars after Japanese customs officials discovered a controlled pain medication in a package she had, without thought, mailed to herself. Japanese authorities can detain suspects for up to 23 days without charge. And those planning to take opioid analgesics, including painkillers, into Thailand must first obtain a permit from the country’s Food And Drug Administration (Thai FDA).

The Middle East also takes an aggressive stance against any potential drug smuggling. For one, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) sentenced an Indian national to four years imprisonment for bringing in a bag of poppy seeds allegedly for cooking. However, the UAE regards such seeds as a source of opium and thus upholds an outright prohibition. And five years ago, a British tourist was sentenced to three years behind bars in Egypt after she was found to be carrying 290 tramadol tablets, legal in the U.K but banned in Egypt, for her Egyptian partner, who suffers from severe back pain.

Thus, let such lessons be a stark reminder to savvy travelers this summer: thoroughly research transit and destination locations and local legislation, obtain necessary prescriptions, letters and permits, and pack no more than your daily dose requirements. U.S. diplomats might help ensure you are kept in humane conditions and have access to legal representatives if disaster strikes. However, foreign governments cannot dictate nor meddle in another country’s due process.

“Make sure that if you travel with prescription medication, you have the prescriptions in printed format with a letter from your doctor stating that it is a medical necessity for you to use this medicine and should travel with it under their orders,” advises Andrade. “And from a general perspective, check with your lawyers or with the consulate before you travel to understand what (the country) considers a criminal substance. Be willing to spend a couple of hours with a lawyer beforehand. That will be nothing compared to what it will cost you if you make a travel mistake.”

Larry Cantu, an international oil and gas attorney at BALL PLLC, cautions one to keep those long flights from hindering your ability to declare and do what is right upon touch-down.

“My horror stories related to frequent business travel are mostly centered around extreme fatigue and jetlag situations when you’re so tired, so groggy, kind of half-awake half asleep and are feeling quite confused,” he points out. “It can be a very discomforting feeling.”

Moreover, it may be a travel-saver to take copies of critical documents from passports to birth and marriage certificates and password copies – not just your own. Email them to your phone or have hard copies in your carry-on.

“A couple of years ago, during the pandemic, I traveled to Moscow, transiting through the Netherlands. And while I was in the air overnight, Russia issued a COVID ban on people coming from that country. I was stopped at the border and told I could not enter, even though I was never actually in the Netherlands – I was only on a transit flight,” Yezhov recalled. “But there was an exemption for Russian citizens and those with close relatives. My wife is Russian, and luckily, I had a copy of her passport and our marriage certificate and was allowed in.”

Indeed, a little preparation and planning goes a long way – and may save your trip and keep you from the depths of a foreign legal catastrophe.