MEXICO CITY — The Mexican trucking industry called on its government Tuesday to ban U.S. trucks from entering Mexico if the United States continues to block Mexican trucks from U.S. highways in defiance of the 6-year-old North American Free Trade Agreement.
Under the NAFTA accord, the United States should have opened its borders Jan. 1 to Mexican trucks carrying international cargo. However, the Clinton administration has refused to allow Mexican trucks to transport cargo to U.S. destinations, saying it fears the trucks are unsafe.
Mexican officials have attacked the move as political pandering to the Teamsters, the big U.S. union whose support is being sought for Vice President Al Gore's presidential campaign.
Mexico responded by invoking NAFTA's dispute-resolution provision, and last week a five-member arbitration panel was formed to study the issue and issue a report within four months. If the panel rules in Mexico's favor, the treaty allows Mexico to seek damages and to retaliate with similar commercial measures of its own.
Mexican Commerce Secretary Herminio Blanco hinted Monday at the possibility of commercial sanctions against the U.S. if it refuses to comply with what Mexico predicts will be a ruling ordering the U.S. to accept Mexican trucks.
Blanco declined to specify what Mexico would do, but he recalled another case in which the U.S. refused to accept a panel's decision. In that dispute--in 1996 over imports of Mexican brooms--Mexico retaliated with tariff increases on a number of U.S. products imported into Mexico.
Blanco said the ban on Mexican trucks has forced northbound truckers to switch to U.S. tractors at the border, a cumbersome and costly process. Commercial cross-border traffic has soared by 170% since NAFTA took effect in January 1994, he noted.
However, acceding to the demands of its own trucking industry by banning U.S. trucks from Mexico would be costly to the Mexican economy as well.
About half of Mexico's imports are raw materials used in the maquiladora, or assembly, industry, which produces finished goods that are then exported back to the United States. Mexico would be unlikely to take any action that would undermine its vital export industry.
Miguel Quintanilla, president of the Mexican truckers association, said the U.S. action was "100% political." "If they won't permit Mexican trucks into the United States, then we feel the sanction should be that the Americans are also barred from entering Mexico."
Quintanilla noted that NAFTA already has safeguards in place, that Mexican trucks can be denied entry to the United States unless they pass safety inspections at the border.
Mexico's trucks are on average 16 years old, whereas the average for U.S. trucks is 5 years. The age of Mexico's fleet has been cited by the Teamsters as evidence of the risk of letting Mexican trucks operate on U.S. roads.
A recent U.S. Department of Transportation audit found that 41% of Mexican trucks inspected in the border region failed to meet U.S. safety standards and were grounded.
Currently, Mexican trucks can operate only within limited Border Commercial Zones, and then only if the trucks have certificates of registration from the Interstate Commerce Commission.
Quintanilla said that Mexico's higher financing, fuel and road toll costs make the industry far less competitive than its U.S. counterpart, and that American fears that Mexican trucking will challenge the U.S. market are hardly warranted.
"We don't have the infrastructure or technology or financing to compete against the U.S. transport industry today," he said. If Mexican companies replaced 20,000 trucks a year in the 300,000-truck fleet, he said, it would take 10 to 12 years to bring down the average truck age to six or seven years.