Mexican Trucks to Cross U.S. Border

After 12 years without implementing the transportation chapter contained in the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), the U.S. government will finally permit some 100 Mexican carriers to provide door-to-door service between Mexico and the United States as part of a one-year trial. The announcement was made jointly after secret negotiations by the Secretaries of Transportation of both nations, Mary Peters and Luis Tellez. The result was like spiking a hornet's nest.

Members of the Teamsters (www.teamsters.org) stand to lose the most in the form of lost work. In response to the pilot project's announcement, an irate Teamsters leader, Jimmy Hoffa, immediately went on national television to denounce the deal with the familiar clich├ęs, including claims that American roads will be filled with rickety rigs driven by overworked and underpaid drivers. "Danger on the roads" and "Playing Russian Roulette on American Roads" were the headlines of two articles that the Teamsters published lashing the decision.

In Mexico some unlikely enemies sprouted overnight. Manuel Armendariz, president of the Mexican Association of Message and Package Carriers (AMMPAC, www.ammpac.org.mx) was fuming. For him the issues involve wages and the rights of drivers. He wonders if "the rules under which this pilot program will be carried out are discriminatory against Mexicans and are the same [rules] as those issued by Mexico's Department of Transportation in 2002. How is it possible that the Mexican government rejected them then, but now accepts them?"

In support of the pilot project in Mexico is the National Association of Courier Enterprises (ANMEC, www.anmec.org). Among its members are DHL, UPS and FedEx. ANMEC claims the project will make trade easier for both countries.

The fundamental difference between these two organizations is that AMMPAC represents Mexican carriers that will have to meet the strictures of U.S. bureaucracy. On the other hand, the couriers of ANMEC know and should be able to meet all U.S. requirements, already having facilities in each of the three NAFTA nations. AMMPAC members are not likely to be immediately accepted into the selective pilot program. US DOT permits will probably go to companies that have both state-of-the-art equipment and qualified drivers to conduct seamless business within both nations.

Renegotiations of the transportation chapter of NAFTA began early this year. The first hint that some sort of accord would be reached came on February 1, when U.S. Secretary of Commerce Carlos Gutierrez announced that negotiators "were very close" to an agreement. Since the announcement, officials from the U.S. Department of Transportation (US DOT, www.dot.gov) have been working in Mexico to give a select group of carriers the green light to operate on U.S. roads.

"What we did in the negotiations", Sub-Secretary of Transportation Manuel Rodriguez explained to Mexican senators, "was to establish and announce the agreement that treatment on the road will not be discriminatory. It's one thing to have a regulation and something else when it's applied. It's got to be even for all concerned."

Under the current system Mexican truckers move trailers to the border where they are handed to a customs agent who turns the trailer over to "burreros," truckers who conduct transborder transfers but are only allowed to travel 25 miles into the United States. Once across the border, American truckers pick up the trailer and move the freight to its final destination. These unlatch-latch operations are costly and will ultimately be phased out.

Teamster president Hoffa bases his arguments about safety and insecure transportation on the "burrero" trucks that don't move more than 70 miles a day and certainly are old rigs. The new Mexican carriers, however, will drive onto United States roads with new tractors that will be in full compliance with all U.S. laws.

Other groups protesting the pilot project within the United States are CRASH (The Citizens for Reliable and Safe Highways Foundation) and PATT (Parents Against Tired Truckers, www.trucksafety.com). Each organization has its own arguments for rejection of the pilot program.

"More than 15% of Mexican drivers coming into the United States don't have the appropriate logs showing how much time they work and drive," says John Lannen, director and spokesman of CRASH and PATT. Lannen did not say where he got his figures since no long-haul drivers have heretofore been entering the United States.

The Mexican truck drivers who will be moving freight into the United States have to be bilingual, know U.S. road signs in each state to be crossed and work with computer logs for hours of service, stops, mileage and diesel record keeping. Ultimately, entry of U.S. truck drivers into Mexico could set new income standards for drivers, since Americans will be getting paid much more for doing the same work. By comparison the Teamsters claim that while a qualified Mexican driver makes an average of $7 an hour, a U.S. driver makes at least $18 an hour.

At day's end, the entry of trucks from Mexico into the United States, and vice versa, is a done deal. The only thing forbidden to Mexican carriers and drivers is cabotage. What remains is to see how an issue stalled for 12 years is implemented, and how officials in the field interpret the law.

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