For most Mexican truckers, access to US a waiting game

Last month's US Department of Transportation report dealt a setback to NAFTA proponents.

Thousands of 18-wheelers roar across the Rio Grande every day, with more than 40 percent of all US-Mexican trade passing through this corridor.

But efficiency isn't the name of the game, thanks in large part to an ongoing ban on Mexican long-haul trucks entering into the United States. Now, a new report by the Office of the Inspector General of the US Department of Transportation (DOT) has set the process of opening the border to Mexican trucks back even further. The report, quietly released Jan. 3, details concerns about the difficulty of gathering data on Mexican drivers to identify high-risk carriers, verifying insurance information, testing for drugs and alcohol, and inspecting vehicle safety.

"We have said from day one that this is about safety. We believe that overall, [Mexican truck companies] still do not have the quality of equipment and training that we have in the United States," says Galen Munroe, a spokesman for the Teamsters Union, which supports the ban.

President Bush came to office promising by 2002 to lift the restrictions, originally put in place by President Clinton in 1995. But the road has been filled with speedbumps. First it was a lawsuit brought by environmental groups in California. This was finally settled in June when the Supreme Court struck down a lower-court decision calling for an environmental assessment of Mexican trucks before allowing them in. More recently have been debates over safety inspections, with the January DOT report recommending that the trucks be examined by US inspectors before they leave Mexican soil. Mexico balked at what it said was a infringement on its sovereignty.

The White House says negotiations continue. "[The restrictions are] not efficient," says Brian Turmail, spokesman for the DOT. "Opening up the border to long-haul trucks is the last unfinished business of NAFTA, and the Bush administration is committed to pushing it through." He says the two trading partners are working to reach an agreement that would create the rules of inspections, but no deadline has been set.

The 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement stipulated that Mexican long-haul trucks would be allowed to transport goods from Mexico City to New York and everywhere in between, just as Canadian trucks move freely within the US. But complaints by environmentalists and labor unions led to Mr. Clinton's ban. Currently, Mexican trucking companies must rely on drayage, or short-haul, trucks to shuttle cargo a maximum of 25 miles into the US. The goods are then transferred to American long-haul trucks to take them further north. Avoiding this middle step, say supporters of NAFTA, would lower costs and open markets, not to mention reduce traffic congestion on the border.

"It's the responsibility of the US to live up to terms of international trade agreements," says Garrick Taylor, director of policy at the Border Trade Alliance, an advocacy organization. "It's not like we are going to see throngs of Mexican trucks going up and down highways the minute this is ironed out, but we need to start opening up and acting like partners."

Meanwhile, Mexican truckers wait - up to 12 hours just to cross, plus the time it takes to transfer their cargo to US trucks. Juan Carlos Garcia Álvarez is the director of Autotransportes Charly, a Mexican company with 37 trucks, 20 of which he says are new. "We would like to go across the border, but they are complaining about us and our trucks," he says. "It's insulting."

José Evaristo Garcia, a lithe 31-year-old with three kids and six years of trucking experience, agrees. "For years I have been hearing: 'Soon, you can drive to America,' " he says. "We are not unqualified."

Martin Rojas, executive director at American Trucking Associations, a US trade group, says he is not worried about Mexico's long-hauls coming in. "We think US companies are competitive and don't have anything to worry about," he says. "Come on in Mexican trucks, let's compete - and find new ways to work together."

Ms. Harman is Latin America bureau chief for the Monitor and USA Today.

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