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Wednesday, June 23, 2004

AP Wire | 06/22/2004 | Officials say fear of increased smuggling unfounded

AP Wire | 06/22/2004 | Officials say fear of increased smuggling unfounded

HARLINGEN, Texas - Critics say a Supreme Court decision allowing Mexican trucks easier access to U.S. roads could lead to weapons, terrorists, illegal immigrants and hazardous materials being hauled into the American heartland.

However, numerous law enforcement officials and experts in border trade say such concerns are unfounded.

Truckers and consumer groups were among those to raise concerns after the U.S. Supreme Court this month ruled against delays to a North American Free Trade Agreement provision that allows Mexican and U.S. trucks to travel freely on one another's highways.

The provision was supposed to take effect in 2000 but was rolled back repeatedly amid questions about whether Mexico's trucks met U.S. environmental and safety standards. Before the ruling, Mexican trucks were only allowed within an approximately 20-mile zone north of the border.

"This certainly will increase the amount of opportunities that people have - whether drug smugglers, people smugglers, or terrorists _to enter this country and harm this country," Teamsters Union spokesman Bret Caldwell said. "They're not even going to inspect these trucks for safety violations, much less for drugs or bomb-making equipment."

But the real concern among opponents of the ruling is competition, according to Jose Zebedeo Garcia, former director of the Center for Latin American and Border Studies at New Mexico State University.

"I guess if I were a trucker in the United States I'd be more inclined to go to Congress and talk about wage rates and outsourcing," he said.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection, the federal agency responsible for inspecting the trucks, now combs through less than 5 percent of truckloads, but spokesman Rick Pauza said that statistic is misleading.

"Every truck goes through some degree of inspection, whether it's analysis by computer or analysis by K-9 inspector," Pauza said. "The primary focus of us at CBP is to prevent weapons of mass destruction and terrorists from coming into the country. Our mission hasn't changed."

The agency has begun phasing in the "Free and Secure Trade" program that allows trucking companies to police themselves to speed through Customs. The companies create computerized lists of loads, then seal the trucks with metal bolts and rods.

Trucks also go through "eyeball" inspections at U.S. border checkpoints and others about 75 miles north. Drug-sniffing dogs are usually on hand at inspection points, and a trucker may be asked to drive through a high-tech scanner that can detect abnormal shapes, including people.

Joan Claybrook, president of the government watchdog group Public Citizen, said she worried about the number of trucks already being found with loads of hazardous materials, such as improperly contained chemicals.

"Trucks have crashes," she said in a telephone interview. "If they're not properly labeled, then firefighters don't know how to deal with the impact or the spillages."

Texas Department of Public Safety Maj. Mark Rogers said Claybrook didn't need to worry.

"We will enforce the same regulations on Mexican carriers as we do on U.S. carriers," he said.

Rogers said 307 public safety officers are assigned to the border, either at one of eight inspection points or to patrol the highways. They're all certified to inspect vehicles for flammable liquids, corrosives, explosives and other hazardous materials, he said.

"The implementation of NAFTA's trucking provision is simply part of the puzzle in making the border work more effectively," said Martin Rojas, executive director of the American Trucking Associations, a lobbying group for the trucking industry.

Before the ruling, short-haul trucks made about 9,000 trips across the border each day, transferring cargo between long-haul trucks in Texas and Mexico, Rojas said.

The NAFTA provision only allows trucks to go to the destination point in the United States, Rojas said. But there's a lot to do before the trucks begin rolling, she said. Mexican truckers will be required to pay for vehicle registrations for every state they pass through, insurance, fuel taxes and safety inspections.

"People think there's going to be someone with a green flag over at the border saying, 'OK, the border's open, come on through,'" he said. "You're not going to see the change over overnight.

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