Mexican long-haul trucks hit roadblock on way to U.S.; NAFTA provision a victim of politics, critics say


A load of battered bubble gum boxes illustrates Lee Scott's argument that Mexican truckers should be kept off U.S. highways.

Parked at a truck stop between San Antonio and the Mexico border, Scott surveyed a trailer full of candy he said was damaged in transit across Mexico. Mexican operators often drive fast despite the country's many bad roads, he said.

"They just keep flying right through there. Boom, boom, boom, boom," Scott, 41, said.

A widespread perception, valid or not, of Mexican truckers as a reckless hazard has helped stall a key provision of the North American Free Trade Agreement. Four years after NAFTA was to open the border for trucking companies, the Clinton administration is unlikely to allow Mexican rigs on U.S. roads, analysts said.

"It just isn't going to happen under this administration," said Dr. James Giermanski, a Texas A&M; International University professor in Laredo.

The issue remains an irritant in relations with Mexico, which in turn has refused to allow U.S. trucks to travel to the interior of Mexico.

Nearly $200 billion in trade now moves between the United States and Mexico, which has become the nation's second-largest trading partner. Most goods move by truck across the border.

Anything that slows the stream of goods and services threatens NAFTA and the region's emergence as a trading powerhouse, said Giermanski, who studies trade and transportation at the border.

While the administration argues safety, Giermanski and many NAFTA backers say domestic politics are behind President Clinton's stance on the trucking provision.

The Teamsters labor union, which represents many U.S. drivers, has fought to keep the border sealed to Mexican trucks.

"The Teamsters have made this sort of a litmus test for their support in next year's elections," said Kevin Middlebrook, director of the U.S.-Mexico Studies Center in San Diego.

The union recently won a pledge from Clinton that he wouldn't change the policy "until there are safety measures in place."

A few days later, a top Transportation Department official made it clear that those measures are lacking.

"There is still a significant amount of work which needs to be completed before further implementation of existing NAFTA provisions," Eugene Conti Jr., assistant Transportation Department secretary, told a Los Angeles hearing last month.

Teamsters officials say the issue mixes safety and economics. Mexican trucking companies will steal U.S. trucking jobs because they operate with lower costs, partly because of lax safety enforcement in Mexico, union officials say.

"We support fair trade, not free trade," said Bret Caldwell, a Teamsters spokesman.

Recently, the Teamsters helped push an amendment through the House aimed at Mexican truckers.

The measure, part of a broad bill stepping up safety enforcement nationwide, would sharply stiffen penalties for Mexican carriers found outside a narrow corridor along the border. That corridor allows short-haul companies to clear the border.

The Clinton administration supports the House approach, but it would become pointless if the border opened to long-haul trucking.

Everybody agrees the current system costs time and money at the border, where loads often transfer between two or three trucks.

"You pick up the load in this country, drive to the terminal, and the Mexican driver there picks up the load and takes it to the customer," said George Miria, 57, who drives for Contract Freighters Inc. of Joplin, Mo. "There's something wrong."

Still, Miria says, Mexican drivers shouldn't be allowed to roam freely in the United States. They lack the experience and don't seem to take care of their equipment, he says.

The Mexican industry includes major companies with modern trucks and well-trained drivers. But smaller companies, often with older rigs and drivers working long hours in an effort to make a living, dominate Mexico's highway commerce.

Half of the Mexican trucks inspected at the Texas border failed safety checks, according to a Transportation Department study last year. Nearly 70 percent of the cross-border commercial traffic passes through Texas.

But only 28 percent of Mexican trucks failed at the California border, the study found.

The rate in California isn't much higher than the rate for U.S. trucks, which fail about 25 percent of the time.

California has a more aggressive inspection effort that may encourage safer trucks, analysts say.

Proponents of cross-border trucking also say it is short-haul trucks that now cross the border, "drayage" companies.

"They're using old, rundown rigs they'd never try to drive cross-country," said Giermanski.

The trade agreement allows countries to reject unsafe drivers and equipment, Mexican officials said.

"NAFTA, however, says both countries will allow safe trucks to enter," said Javier Mancera, a Washington representative of Mexico's commerce ministry. "This is about politics, not safety."

The two countries agreed to have sufficient inspection facilities to allow cross-border trucking. They also agreed to harmonize their safety rules, along with other ground-transportation standards.

Canada, the third member of NAFTA, and the United States opened their border to trucking more than a decade ago.

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