- The Washington Times - Friday, August 17, 2001

Mexican trucks already are traveling U.S. roads thanks to special exceptions put into the North American Free Trade Agreement, even though Congress and President Bush are wrangling over whether to open the border.
The conventional wisdom holds that the U.S. border with Mexico is effectively closed to Mexican trucks, which can drive only in a narrow "commercial zone" that extends between 12 and 25 miles into the United States.
In fact, a range of exemptions allows a modest number of Mexican drivers and vehicles to do business on a basis that most observers believe is currently prohibited for safety reasons.
"I work both sides of the border," said Salvador Mapula, owner of a trucking company, Baja Intercontinental Transportes, that is based in Tijuana, Mexico.
Mr. Mapula has compiled a safety record that is enviable, even by U.S. standards. His trucks have failed 18 percent of the 53 inspections U.S. authorities have conducted over the past two years, well below the 24.3 percent failure rate for U.S. companies, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation.
"We've had almost nothing wrong with our trucks," he said.
For years, the company's vehicles have hauled produce — especially strawberries in the summer — between Tijuana and Fresno, Calif., 400 miles north of the border.
His business has operated in the United States since 1973, a crucial advantage.
NAFTA "grandfathered" the five Mexican trucking companies that were operating in the United States before 1982, when the ban on Mexican trucks went into effect.
For various reasons, it also exempted at least 160 other Mexican companies, which enjoy the right to operate in the United States, according to U.S. government documents.
The United States agreed in NAFTA to repeal the 1992 prohibition and open the border states — Texas, Arizona, New Mexico and California — to Mexican trucks by 1995. By 1999, 48 states were to have been opened to Mexican big rigs.
The Clinton administration, citing concerns that Mexican trucks are unsafe, and under pressure from truckers unions, refused to adhere to this provision of the treaty.
The vast majority of Mexican trucks remained confined to the border area.
An arbitration panel ruled in February that the refusal violated NAFTA.
Mr. Bush, a strong supporter of the trade agreement, ignited a political firestorm in May when he announced plans to open the border by the end of 2002. Both the House and the Senate passed legislation to block the move in July, and Mr. Bush has threatened to veto the bill if it reaches his desk.
The debate has been based on the assumption that American highways are free of what Mr. Bush's opponents charge are unsafe Mexican trucks.
In fact, Mexican trucks are traveling roads well beyond the border area.
"Compared to the overall number of trucks [in the border zone], it's a small number," a U.S. government official said. "But they're there."
Unlike many Mexican trucks that operate in the border area, vehicles that travel deeper in to the United States seem to have strong safety records, but comprehensive data is not available.
"We don't have statistics on this specific category," said a Department of Transportation official who requested anonymity.
The official emphasized that the trucks are inspected and the companies' individual safety records are available.
NAFTA carved out several kinds of exemptions for Mexican trucks in the United States.
Mr. Mapula, who started his business in 1973, belongs to a small group — about five companies — that have operated in the United States since the 1970s. All but one of the companies whose safety records could be obtained by The Washington Times had inspection failure rates well below the U.S. average, and that company had made only three trips into the United States in two years.
The consequences of failing a look-over explains why these trucks are careful when traveling in the United States, a department official said.
"If you're a Mexican truck and you get nailed in Idaho, you have to pay" expensive repair costs in the United States, the official said.
A bigger loophole in the ban is for Mexican subsidiaries of U.S. manufacturing companies that own their own "private" trucking fleets that are not for-hire to other firms.
Their trucks, emblazoned with well-known corporate logos such as Frito-Lay, Perrier, Pillsbury and McDonald's, have the right to drive across the border from deep inside Mexico into the American heartland. According to government documents, 160 companies have this authority.
Few of them actually use it, according to Gary Petty, president of the National Private Truck Council, because their trucks would have to return to Mexico empty, since they are not allowed to pick up loads in the United States.
These private fleets have an above-average safety record largely because companies invest heavily in not tarnishing the names of their products, according to the Transportation official.
"Seeing the truck tipped over on the evening news would be devastating for the brand," Mr. Petty said. "There's a built-in incentive for high safety standards."
NAFTA also keeps the borders open for Mexican bus companies that charter special trips from Mexico into the United States, according to government documents.
But this business is "very small," according to Peter Pantuso, president of the American Bus Association.
"They have nice equipment and good drivers, but I have no idea whether they measure up to U.S. safety standards," Mr. Pantuso said.

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