First Mexican truck to enter US interior within days amid protests

SAN DIEGO (AP) – The first Mexican carrier is
set to roll into the U.S. interior within days, but American trucking
union leaders and two California congressmen haven't given up on
stopping the cross-border trucking program that had been stalled for
years by safety concerns and political wrangling.

U.S. Reps. Duncan Hunter
and Bob Filner joined Teamsters union leader James Hoffa at the border
on Wednesday to take a bipartisan stand against the bilateral pilot
project that will allow approved Mexican trucks to come deep into the
United States. The first Mexican truck will enter Texas on Friday.

The lawmakers and Hoffa
were surrounded by more than 75 union members from at least five states
who attended the news conference near a major international truck
crossing in San Diego. Hunter is a San Diego-area Republican, while
Filner is a Democrat whose district includes California's border with
Mexico.

Allowing Mexican trucking
companies to deliver the goods rather than transfer them onto U.S.
haulers at the border will put American jobs and highway safety at risk,
they said.

“We're literally taking
good jobs here in America and passing them over the line to Mexico,”
Hunter told the crowd, many holding signs reading “NAFTA kills” and
“Stop the war on workers.”

Washington on Friday
approved the first Mexican trucking company, Transportes Olympic, nearly
two decades after the hotly contested provision of the 1994 North
American Free Trade Agreement set off lawsuits and a costly trade
dispute between the neighboring countries.

Transportes Olympic employees were busy Wednesday finishing the preparations for its historic, maiden trip.

The long-haul truck will
cross the border Friday at Laredo, Texas, and head about 450 miles north
to Garland, Texas, to deliver industrial equipment, said Guillermo
Perez, the transport manager at the firm in the industrial Monterrey
suburb of Apodaca, about two hours south of Laredo.

He dismissed claims by
Hoffa and the lawmakers that Mexican trucking companies and their
drivers do not meet U.S. safety standards. He said his company has a
strict random drug testing policy for its 61 drivers and it has bought
more than a dozen trucks in the past two years.

U.S. inspectors will check
them Thursday, and will also have a database on truckers who have been
approved by the U.S. Department of Transportation, Perez said.

“It's a really controlled
program. There's no way to avoid the law,” he said. “We are really
prepared for this. It's not weird for me that some (U.S. trucking)
companies are willing to shut it down because now they have to compete
with us.”

The company was also the
first approved under the 2009 pilot program before President Barack
Obama's administration canceled it. Mexico retaliated by placing
tariffs on 99 agricultural products worth more than $2 billion annually.

Mexico cut the tariffs in
half this summer after Obama and Mexican President Felipe Calderon
approved an inspection and monitoring program for the companies that had
been approved in 2009. The Mexican government has vowed to lift the
rest once the truck heads out of the border zone Friday.

“We're really excited,” Perez said. “Now we can provide door-to-door service so it's about a 15 percent savings for companies.”

Opponents say the fight isn't over.

Hunter has co-authored a
bill sponsored by U.S. Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., that would require
the pilot program to be ceased in three years and Congress to vote on
the issue again. Filner said Wednesday that opponents may have to
“escalate” demonstrations to get the Obama administration to realize it
made a mistake.

“We hope we can stop this before we have a disaster,” he said.

Criminal activity has been a
problem for years even within the U.S. government's strictest trusted
carrier programs. Drug trafficking organizations have smuggled tons of
drugs inside trucks driven by approved truckers coming from inspected
and certified facilities inside Mexico.

Todd Spencer, the executive
vice president of the Independent Drivers Association, which represents
small independent trucking businesses, said 100,000 trucking jobs will
be lost. Proponents say it will spur economic growth by saving companies
millions by sending the goods door-to-door.

“We certainly hoped that it
cannot be stopped,” said James Clark, director of the San Diego
Regional Chamber of Commerce's Mexico Business Center. “The U.S. has
been in violation of the NAFTA agreement ever since the beginning of the
trucking issue. Mexican trucks have every right to come into the U.S.
under NAFTA as long as the trucks are fully inspected to U.S. standards
and the drivers speak English.”

They say especially strict
safeguards are in place: The U.S. government is paying for electronic
monitoring devices to be installed in all Mexican trucks used in the
program.

Mexican trucking companies
had to fill out an application, pay a fee and then submit the names of
any drivers who will participate so they can undergo national security
and criminal background checks by the Justice Department and Department
of Homeland Security.

Inspectors will check out
the trucks for safety violations, verify the drivers' qualifications and
administer oral English-proficiency exams.

About 70 percent of goods
from the $4 billion trade between the two nations is transported by land
to its destinations according to the Mexican government.

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2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not
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