NUEVO LAREDO, Mexico — For the first time under the North American Free Trade Agreement, a Mexican tractor-trailer crossed into the U.S. on Friday on a trip to the country’s interior, beginning a trucking program that has been stalled for years by concerns that it would put highway safety and American jobs at risk.
The truck hauling a large steel drilling structure on a flatbed trailer crossed the border at Laredo nearly two decades after passage of NAFTA, which was supposed to improve cargo transportation between the two countries.
At a ceremony in the border city of Nuevo Laredo before the truck set off for a Dallas suburb, the owner of the Transportes Olympic trucking company told dignitaries of both countries that he considers his fleet’s access to the U.S. interior like being invited to a friend’s house.
“We have to be extra orderly and very respectful,” Fernando Paez told about 300 people. “We will demonstrate that we can operate safely and efficiently.”
The driver of the Freightliner truck was Josue Cruz, who waved from the cab, flashed a thumbs-up and thundered toward the bridge over the Rio Grande.
The truck was expected to unload in Garland on Saturday or possibly Monday if the business couldn’t receive the cargo immediately.
Paez’s company was first approved to operate in the U.S. interior under a 2007 pilot program that allowed a limited number of trucks before President Barack Obama’s administration canceled it in 2009. Mexico retaliated by placing tariffs on a wide range of American goods.
Hours before Friday’s ceremony, Mexico announced it was suspending the tariffs. But the Mexican government warned that they could be reinstated if the accord is not respected by the United States.
The $2 billion worth of tariffs were imposed on 99 U.S. products, including Christmas trees, onions, oranges, apples, juice concentrates, toothpaste, deodorant, sunglasses, among others. Mexico reduced the tariffs after signing the trucking agreement with the U.S. in July and then removed them completely Friday.
“With this program, we’re initiating a new stage of competition, of prosperity, of regional integration,” said Bruno Ferrari, Mexican secretary of the economy.
NAFTA, signed in 1994, had called for Mexican trucks to have unrestricted access to highways in border states by 1995 and full access to all U.S. highways by January 2000. Canadian trucks have no limits on where they can go.
But until now, Mexican trucks have seldom been allowed farther than a buffer zone on the U.S. side of the border, where their cargo was typically transferred to American vehicles.
The public debate surrounding the accord had mostly focused on the safety of Mexican trucks. But labor unions and other groups were strongly opposed to the agreement, saying it would cost Americans trucking and other jobs.
The U.S. Department of Transportation says the safety concerns have been resolved. Electronic monitoring systems will track how many hours the trucks are in service. Drivers will also have to pass safety reviews, drug tests and assessments of their English skills. Mexico has the authority to demand similar measures from American drivers.
The impact of the program will be limited at first. Only 10 other Mexican trucking companies are going through the certification process right now.
Juan Carlos Munoz, president of Mexico’s largest trucking trade group, known by its Spanish initials as CANACAR, noted that opposition remains in Mexico. Some Mexican trucking companies doubt that the U.S. will treat them the same as American drivers.
“But we can’t cry before they hit us, as we say here in Mexico,” Munoz said. “If along the way, we find obstacles, discriminatory treatment, unequal treatment, then we’ll complain. But we can’t complain before.”
“It’s a program that will have to develop little by little,” Munoz said. “It’s a first step on a long climb.”
U.S. Ambassador Anthony Wayne said governments “have to support the businesses in their efforts to reduce costs and accelerate trade.”
Paez said the approval process was rigorous, even though his company already qualified under a Department of Homeland Security trusted carrier program.
But American groups that fought the program for years remained opposed to the entry of Mexican trucks.
“The fact remains that Mexico does not meet our safety standards and a violent drug war is raging there, which the Mexican government is powerless to control,” Teamsters General President Jim Hoffa said.
Rep. Duncan Hunter from San Diego said the program offers no benefits for American truckers, who will be forced to compete against Mexican carriers.
“And taking into account the safety and security drawbacks,” he said, “the program stands to do far more harm than good.”