HERMOSILLO, Mexico — Seeing mile after mile of trucks bearing cargo to the U.S. backed up on Mexico's Highway 15 really drives home the need for improvement in the inspection process for trucks. On the way down from Nogales, Ariz., to the Sonora Spring Grape Summit in Hermosillo on April 16, the phrase "truck stop" took on a whole new meaning.
Beginning at a Mexican military checkpoint about an hour south of the border, near Benjamin Hill, Sonora, a line of semi tractor-trailers in the northbound lane stretched south as far as the eye could see.
Estimates I heard put the line of trucks as snaking for 6 miles, and Marco Antonio Camou, subsecretary for Sonora's state department of agriculture, said it was 10 miles long.
As a testament to how slowly the line was progressing, the majority of the truck cabs were empty. Numerous drivers were standing at the side of the road or in the median.
Getting through the inspection process was said to take up to eight hours.
The wheels of commerce had quite literally come to a stop.
Standstill at Benjamin Hill
Once the trucks made it through inspection at Benjamin Hill, they could look forward to another miles-long line for inspections at the Mariposa border crossing in Nogales, Mexico.
The waste in diesel and man hours alone mocks notions of efficiency and free trade.
Shippers and importers of vegetables, melons and grapes from western Mexico are all too familiar with the situation.
Some potential relief sits waiting on the roadside near Benjamin Hill.
A modern inspection facility featuring X-ray scanning equipment and lanes earmarked for cargo haulers, buses, cars and military vehicles has the capacity to process 180 vehicles an hour and barracks for 180 trained personnel.
Camou said land has been acquired at the site to expand inspection lanes at the facility and add an additional X-ray scanner within 10 years.
As of mid-April, although the inspection station had been completed for a month or more, it sat unmanned and unused as trucks stretched south into the Sonoran Desert.
Some joked that the facility's opening hinged on a visit by Mexican President Felipe Calderon for a ribbon-cutting ceremony to christen the site.
Speaking to the crowd at the grape summit, Camou maintained the inspection facility would be online by late April.
Get the truck outta here
Of course, here on the U.S. side of the border we have our own trucking and trade issues to resolve.
In March, the Obama administration scuttled a pilot program in place for several years allowing Mexican trucks into the U.S. in areas not far from the border on a limited basis.
Under North American Free Trade Agreement provisions, the U.S. is obligated to allow Mexican trucks access to its highways.
Obama's gambit to shore up political support from unions predictably drew a swift response from Mexican officials, who slapped tariffs on U.S. grapes, almonds and stone fruit as well as a host of other ag and nonagricultural goods the U.S. sends to its southern neighbor.
Mexican trucks on U.S. roads have long been opposed the by Teamsters as well as independent haulers, such as those represented by the Owner Operator Independent Driver Association, Grain Valley, Mo.
After Obama banished Mexican trucks, the Missouri association issued a press release in support of the move and also suggested Mexican trucks pose a safety hazard to U.S. motorists.
However, the years the pilot program was in place suggest such fears are unfounded.
As to questions about the safety of commercial vehicles on U.S. roads, John Pandol, special projects director for Delano, Calif.-based Pandol Bros. (an importer of Sonoran grapes, among other commodities), suggested considering the case of passenger buses from Mexico, which regularly venture into the U.S., outside the zone mandated for the truck pilot program.
Mexican buses have been coming into the U.S. for more than a decade without major incident, Pandol said.
There's little reason to suspect the same wouldn't prove to be true for trucks.
Of course, if resolving U.S.-Mexico truck disagreements were easy, they never would have become an issue.
Free trade and open borders must be weighed against illegal immigration, drug-running and weapons smuggling that have brought violence and corruption to both sides of the border.