"There's no glass window shielding the border," said Alma Leticia Figueroa Jimenez, the former head of ecology for Ciudad Juarez. "The U.S. sends us junk, and Mexico sends back pollution."
But Victor Valenzuela, an air quality expert with the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, says there is cause for optimism. Although NAFTA will allow very old used cars to be imported to Mexico, it will eventually permit newer ones to enter as well. That should lower prices and enable buyers to upgrade to cleaner vehicles, he said.
Mexico City mechanic Carlos Suarez is thrilled that NAFTA is prying open Mexico's retail car trade, in which he said new-car dealers have reaped outsized profits for years. Every month or two he flies to Juarez and buys an imported vehicle to sell back home. His latest acquisition: a 1998 GMC van for $3,000 that he hopes to sell for $5,000.
"Why should they make all the money?" Suarez said of new-car dealers.
Some U.S. firms have glimpsed the future. Used-car dealers from Mexico are the fastest-growing group of buyers at Manheim auto auction in El Paso, according to marketing manager Erika Ortiz.
To better serve them, the company is considering opening a service center in Juarez where they could bid for U.S. cars online without having to cross the border. Most of the auction's staff is bilingual. Even auctioneers who speak only English have learned to rattle off prices in Spanish.
"We want them to feel comfortable," Ortiz said of Mexican buyers. "That's where the growth is."
Times staff writer Cecilia Sanchez contributed to this report.