By CHRISTOPHER SHERMAN, Associated Press
NUEVO LAREDO, Mexico - For the first time under the North American Free Trade Agreement, a Mexican truck crossed into the U.S. on Friday bound for the country's interior, beginning a program that was stalled for years by concerns it could put highway safety and American jobs at risk.
The tractor-trailer hauling a large steel drilling structure 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 before the truck set off for a Dallas suburb, the owner of the Transportes Olympic trucking company said 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 dignitaries of both countries and a crowd of 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. He was expected to unload in Garland on Saturday or possibly Monday if the business couldn't receive the cargo immediately.
Trucks have crossed into the interior before but only as part of a short-lived pilot program that began in 2007 with a limited number of vehicles. President Barack Obama's administration canceled it in 2009, and Mexico retaliated by placing tariffs on a wide range of American goods.
Hours before Friday's ceremony in the border city of Nuevo Laredo, Mexico announced it was suspending the tariffs. But the Mexican government warned that they could be reinstated if the U.S. does not honor the accord.
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. He called Friday's activity the "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.
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.
Associated Press writers E. Eduardo Castillo in Mexico City and Julie Watson in San Diego contributed to this report.