On the Border >By Foss Farrar

Stalled NAFTA Process Keeps Trucks Waiting at Otay Mesa Customs Facility

The stalled North American Free Trade (NAFTA) process keeps commercial freight from crossing the US-Mexico border as freely as industry leaders predicted five years ago, said Bill Hay, president of Bill Hay International, San Diego, California. This includes shipments of refrigerated products and bulk shipments in tank trailers.

"NAFTA brought reduced duties on commodities," Hay said. "But as far as making it faster for commercial fleets to get across the border, generally it didn't."

Bill Hay International is a transportation broker specializing in the movement of products between the United States and Mexico and Central America. Shipments to and from Latin America account for about 99% of company-managed shipments, Hay said. The remaining 1% are shipments for customers doing business in Latin America who also want Hay to manage shipments within the United States.

NAFTA is not the "great white carpet" expediting goods across the border that it was expected to be several years ago, Hay said. For manufacturers based wholly within the United States, Mexico, and Canada, not much has changed. Border hang-ups at customs facilities are common.

Hay leaves customs issues to licensed customs brokers and concentrates on providing transportation for customers. "I avoid border stations like the plague," he said. "We deal with many customs brokers and freight forwarders that specialize in customs procedures."

One such company is Am-Mex International, a customs broker and freight forwarder based in San Diego. Rene Romero, president of Am-Mex International, recently led a tour of US and Mexican customs facilities at Otay Mesa on the San Diego-Tijuana border. Maquiladora Program

Tijuana is the fourth largest port of entry linking the United States and Mexico. About 2,000 truckloads a day enter the country through the port. About 80% of the imports into Tijuana are for the maquiladora program for manufacturers with twin-plant, cross-border operations. This program reduces costs for foreign manufacturers who operate plants in Mexico.

"The maquiladora program allows foreign manufacturers to import raw materials into Mexico for further processing without having to pay duties on these materials," Romero said. "Imports include electronics, textiles, finished goods, and food products." About 4,000 foreign manufacturers in the maquiladora program operate plants in Mexican cities, mostly in the northern part of the country near the US border, Hay said. Between 800 and 900 of these manufacturers operate facilities in Tijuana. The only taxes these manufacturers pay is for the value they add to the finished product.

Mexican Customs officers at the Tijuana facility check paperwork for all loads coming into the country. Inspection is limited to about 10% of everything that goes into Mexico, the Customs official said. The Tijuana facility has an inspection dock with 15 truck positions. Across the gate from Tijuana Customs is the US Customs station occupying 15 acres in Otay Mesa. Opened five years ago, it replaces the previous Customs facility that sat on 21/2 acres. About 2,200 to 2,300 commercial vehicles cross the border at Otay Mesa each day. Half of these are empty trailers, while the others are carrying a wide range of cargoes. Customs Inspections

US Customs performs two levels of inspections on freight: compliance and enforcement. Compliance inspections are to ensure that cargo complies with US regulations. Shippers must provide documentation to support compliance.

Many shippers moving products between the United States and Mexico through the Otay Mesa facility take advantage of the Automated Broker Interface program, a US Customs official said. "Brokers transmit information to us electronically before products are shipped," the official said. "About 85% of the shipments that pass through Otay Mesa are processed using the automated system."

Although customs officials routinely check shipments moving through Otay Mesa for compliance, they do not inspect all cargo for contraband such as drugs. Enforcement inspections are done at the inspector's discretion.

"We can't inspect every truck that comes across the border. We have to be selective," the customs official said. "We rely on tip-offs and our inspectors' gut feelings about potentially illegal shipments. We question drivers we haven't seen before. If the answers raise suspicions, we are inclined to inspect the vehicle. After awhile, regular drivers and inspectors get to know each other. But even these drivers get inspected occasionally."

Besides customs officials, inspectors representing other governmental bodies work at Otay Mesa. Federal agencies include the Department of Agriculture, Food and Drug Administration, and the US Fish and Wildlife Service. State and county officials from California also perform inspections at the facility.

"We empower any agency in this compound to check a vehicle," the customs official said.

"A truck can be tagged for inspection at any time while being processed in this facility." Narcotics Found in Tanker

Smugglers typically hide illegal drugs within the trailer or packaging, not within the product itself, said Rene Romero, president of Am-Mex International, a customs broker and freight forwarder.

Customs inspectors at Otay Mesa recently found 14,000 pounds of cocaine in a propane tanker. Propane transports usually cross the border at Otay Mesa, deliver payloads in Mexico, and return to the United States empty. Customs inspectors are reluctant to open tanks used to transport propane because typically it is extremely hazardous to do so.

Officials at Otay Mesa have a tool to detect drugs in tankers and refrigerated trailers. About six months ago, a low-energy X-ray device housed in a closed building referred to as "the shed" was put in operation. The X-ray unit works with the military nuclear technology. "Inspectors don't need protective gear to operate this device," the customs official said. "It uses a narrow X-ray beam the width of your finger. We can run about five trucks an hour through the shed. Next to the X-ray unit is a calibrated scale on which we weigh the trucks."

Tank trucks entering Otay Mesa routinely are weighed in the shed, he said. Inspectors also note each truck's VIN (vehicle identification number), the name of its owner, and driver.

When the driver returns to Otay Mesa after delivering a load, his truck is weighed again. Besides the X-ray device, customs inspectors use density-measuring technology to check the trailer's core density compared to the width of its skin. "If we get a low reading, we know there's nothing back there," the customs official said. "If the reading is higher, we might check to see if drugs are hidden inside the wall."

Trucks and trailers loaded with produce occasionally are targeted for enforcement inspection at Otay Mesa, Romero said. Pallets of produce may be run through the X-ray device to determine if drugs were stashed between product cases.

When checking produce for compliance, US Customs mainly checks to see if the produce containers are marked properly, the values are correct, and the proper duties are paid, Romero said. Inspectors for the Food and Drug Administration stuff produce samples in plastic bags for lab tests to determine if pesticide levels exceed federal limits, he added.

Importers complying with legal requirements can get preferential treatment at the border crossing, Romero said. Those who meet these requirements may join a program known as "line release." Their distribution trucks get "gate-to-gate" clearance at the customs facility, typically bypassing inspection. Importers in this program have a 5% to 10% inspection rate.

Otay Mesa has an inspection dock used primarily for agricultural products, produce, and fish. Every trailer directed to this dock must open its doors for inspection. Drivers of refrigerated trucks and trailers are allowed to keep refrigeration units running until cargo is inspected.

One trailer at the inspection dock during a recent tour had a partially palletized load. Another trailer containing a load of tomatoes had "labeling problems," the US Customs official said.

"The USDA is interested in that one," he said. "Although the tomato cases have similar labels from the same producer, some are from the United States and some from Mexico."

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