Truckers protest Mexican freight carrier program

LAREDO, Texas — Dozens of truckers rallied at Mexican border crossings in California and Texas Thursday to protest a pilot program to allow up to 100 Mexican trucking companies to haul their cargo anywhere in the United States.

Carrying signs reading “NAFTA Kills” and “Unsafe Mexican Trucks,” a few dozen protesters circled in the heat for two hours at Laredo’s port of entry on the U.S.-Mexico border.

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

The U.S. Transportation Department said no Mexican trucks had arrived under the program as of late Thursday afternoon. But 38 Mexican firms were poised for U.S. permits, said Melissa Mazzella DeLaney, a spokeswoman for the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, which regulates truck safety.

The Teamsters union, Sierra Club and watchdog group Public Citizen sued to stop the program, arguing there won’t be enough oversight of drivers, but a federal appeals court ruled the Bush administration could move ahead.

Government lawyers said the program is a necessary part of the North American Free Trade Agreement and the trucks would meet U.S. regulations.

Near San Diego’s Otay Mesa border 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.”

Critics such as Teamsters organizer Hugo Flores doubt that Mexican drivers will be held to the same rules, such as the length of work shifts and drug testing.

NAFTA requires that all roads in the United States, Mexico and Canada be opened to carriers from all three countries. Canadian trucking companies already have full access to U.S. roads, but Mexican trucks can travel only about 20 miles inside the country at certain border crossings.

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

The government says it has imposed rigorous safety protocols in the program, including drug and alcohol testing for drivers done by U.S. companies. Additionally, law enforcement officials have stepped up nationwide enforcement of a law requiring interstate truck and bus drivers to have a basic understanding of written and spoken English.

Besides the safety issues, Flores said there are also concerns about job security and pollution from emissions.

“Now they’re trying to export all our driving jobs to Mexico,” Flores said. “That’s one less American job.”