“My wife and I recently decided to leave Argentina and move back to the U.S. However, if we sell our house, we would be getting pesos. What do we do with the pesos in the U.S.? The government won’t sell any dollars to us. Do we have to go to somewhere to buy dollars illegally?” Mr. Banuchi asked. “What do we do with those dollars? Do we have to illegally transfer them out of the country? Life is not easy. We are trapped.”
The black market values pesos at about 6.37 to the dollar, compared to the official rate of 4.65. Everyone wants to avoid falling on the wrong side of this gap, and people with overseas bank accounts or credit cards have learned they can profit from trading their currencies locally.
“You have to change those dollars to pesos, and you have to do it at the black market, because why would you want to lose 40 percent when changing dollars to pesos by doing it legally?” Ms. Ford said.
Bribery and fiscal responsibility
Governments have a phrase for this: money laundering.
And while it’s legal to carry up to $10,000 across borders, keeping wads of money can be perilous in Buenos Aires, where someone has been killed in a home-invasion robbery every other day in the past few months.
Many times, entire families thought to have cash are tied up and tortured by teams of thieves.
Many Argentines have some access to credit or debit cards and use them to buy things abroad or online that are prohibitively expensive or hard to find in Argentina. Such purchases have doubled this year to more than $396 million as travelers make a sport of slipping their goodies through customs.
Travelers must pay a 50 percent customs duty on any purchases above $300 per trip, but underreporters are rarely questioned. When they are, bribes sometimes are requested.
One couple with five children recently returned from a U.S. trip loaded with personal electronics. The customs agent at Ezeiza International Airport spotted the goods as they passed through the X-ray and quietly told the husband to put $300 in a bag by the scanner.
“I thought it was a setup, that we would be arrested, but my husband said not to worry,” confessed the woman, insisting on anonymity to avoid prosecution and fines.
Argentine officials say they’re only working to ensure fiscal responsibility.
“All physical merchandise that comes in through customs must be declared,” Mr. Echegaray said. “The reality is that we want to collect the taxes. It’s not anything else.”