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Truckers protest cargo program

September 07, 2007|From the Associated Press

SAN DIEGO -- Dozens of truckers rallied at California and Texas ports of entry on the Mexican border to protest a pilot program to allow up to 100 Mexican trucking companies to haul their cargo anywhere in the United States.

At San Diego's Otay Mesa, the second-busiest cargo crossing on the U.S.-Mexico border after Laredo, Texas, demonstrators gathered at dawn to wave American flags and signs that read "Save American Highways" and "Unsafe Mexican Trucks."

At Laredo's port of entry at the World Trade Bridge, a few dozen protesters circled in the heat for two hours.

"What do we want? Safe highways. When do we want them? Now!" they chanted.

Still, the U.S. Transportation Department went ahead and granted its first permit Thursday to a Mexican trucking company to haul cargo in the United States, fulfilling a long-delayed requirement of the North American Free Trade Agreement.

Transportes Olympic, based in a Monterrey, Mexico, suburb, won the permit after Mexico granted authority to Stagecoach Cartage & Distribution Inc. of El Paso to travel anywhere in Mexico.

Both companies were cleared to cross the border immediately but might hold off several days while they determine new routes, said John Hill, who runs the U.S. Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, which regulates truck safety.

The U.S. plans to give up to 25 Mexican firms permission by the end of September and add 25 companies each month until hitting 100 by the end of this year under a one-year pilot program, Hill said.

Mexico has also committed to allow up to 100 U.S. firms anywhere in Mexico by the end of this year, he said, and 14 are poised to receive permission.

So far, 38 Mexican trucking firms have been pre-screened to go anywhere in the U.S., said Hill, who expressed confidence that 100 firms would eventually qualify as word spreads.

The pilot program is designed to study whether opening the U.S.-Mexico border to all trucks could be done safely.

The U.S. government says it has imposed rigorous safety protocols in the program, including drug and alcohol testing for drivers. The tests must be conducted by U.S. companies.

Additionally, law enforcement officials have stepped up nationwide enforcement of a law that's been on the books since the 1970s requiring interstate truck and bus drivers to have a basic understanding of written and spoken English.

Opening the border to trucks is part of the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement. Since 1982, Mexican trucks have been allowed to operate only within a 25-mile zone along the border. But near the San Diego crossing, dozens of truckers led by the Teamsters mixed with anti-illegal-immigration activists. Business was uninterrupted, said Lt. Hector Paredes of the California Highway Patrol, which inspects about 3,000 trucks a day at the crossing.

"We're already inspecting Mexican trucks and will continue to inspect them the same way," Paredes said. "These trucks already haul product from Tijuana to San Diego. Now they will be able to go beyond San Diego."

In Laredo, about a dozen police officers stood watch Thursday, but the Teamsters said they weren't there to cause trouble. As trucks passed by the protesters, some drivers honked in support and others gave the group the thumbs up.

At a truck stop near El Paso along Interstate 10, reactions to the program were mixed.

Carlos Moreno, who has been a truck driver for nearly four decades, said he doesn't begrudge anyone trying to make a living.

"There's enough for all of us," said Moreno, an El Paso resident.

But he is concerned that some of the drivers from Mexico can't read highway signs written in English. "You can always tell in construction zones," he said.

Omar Nunez, a 34-year-old driver from Pecos, said he worries that freight prices will drop as shippers turn to Mexican trucking companies that may offer cheaper services.

"As it is, I'm barely making it right now," he said.

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