Traffic Snarled at Texas-Mexico Border by New Security Measures, Protests

Date: Wednesday, April 13, 2022
Source: The Wall Street Journal

PHARR, Texas—Two major international bridges were effectively shut down after Mexican truckers blocked lanes in both directions to protest a new border security initiative from Texas Gov. Greg Abbott that forced them to wait hours or days to bring products into the U.S.

At the Pharr-Reynosa International Bridge, which spans the Rio Grande, officials scrambled to react Monday morning as truckers obstructed all lanes on the Mexican side. Pharr police began turning away traffic, securing “Bridge Closed” barriers across all lanes. As of Tuesday afternoon, the bridge remained closed with no reopening in sight.

Some 700 miles away, in El Paso, a similar protest by truckers in Mexico forced the Ysleta Bridge to close late Monday afternoon. On Tuesday, it had not reopened.

The shutdown is the most dramatic fallout so far from Mr. Abbott’s newest border-security measure, which he says is needed to stop immigrants and illegal drugs from coming into the country.

Mr. Abbott had said last week he would dispatch Texas Department of Public Safety troopers to conduct safety inspections on commercial vehicles driving into Texas from Mexico, after they had already passed federal customs. State officials said they don’t need warrants to inspect trucks for safety issues.

“Cartels use vehicles, many of them dangerous commercial trucks, to smuggle immigrants, deadly fentanyl and other illegal cargo into Texas,” Mr. Abbott said. “I know in advance this is going to dramatically slow traffic from Mexico into Texas.”

The move—which has drawn pushback from the business community and threatens the $440 billion in trade that passes over international bridges on the Texas-Mexico border each year—is part of Mr. Abbott’s Operation Lone Star, which has sought to exert more state control over border security.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection, in a statement, called the state inspections unnecessary. “The longer than average wait times—and the subsequent supply chain disruptions—are unrelated to CBP screening activities and are due to additional and unnecessary inspections being conducted by the Texas Department of Public Safety at the order of the governor of Texas,” the statement said.

Traffic had dropped as much as 60% as a result of the inspections, it said.

Monday, the Texas Department of Public Safety said troopers had inspected 2,685 trucks and removed 646 from service for violations including burned-out headlights or taillights, defective brakes or flawed tires. The department didn’t report intercepting any drugs or immigrants. Neither Mr. Abbott’s office nor the Department of Homeland Security responded to requests for comment.

In Laredo, the nation’s largest inland port, passage over a bridge that typically takes less than an hour began taking as long as 10 hours, said Daniel Covarrubias, director of the Texas Center at Texas A&M International University, which analyzes the state’s international trade.

On an average Friday, Laredo’s Colombia Solidarity Bridge is crossed by about 2,500 trucks, but only some 800 crossed last Friday, Dr. Covarrubias said, a decline of about 70%. “It affects trade exponentially,” he said, noting that much of Laredo’s traffic includes parts destined for car manufacturing plants. “If you start adding time, all these costs get passed along to the consumer.”

Since last summer, Mr. Abbott has had state police arrest migrants on misdemeanor trespassing charges, begun work on a state-funded border wall and dispatched thousands of National Guard troops to the border. In addition to the truck inspections announced Wednesday, he said Texas would begin offering free transportation for any migrants who want it to Washington or other cities outside of Texas.

The Mexican government said the inspections were slowing down crossings at four border points and estimated that only a third of the usual commercial traffic is getting through.

“The Ministry of Foreign Relations rejects this state measure that significantly harms trade flows between our two countries,” the foreign ministry said. “Merchants of Mexico and the U.S. are losing competitiveness and considerable income.”

It said the Mexican government has been in touch with the U.S. Embassy in Mexico, the U.S. departments of State and Homeland Security as well as the Texas governor’s office.

Pharr, a city in the Rio Grande Valley, is the primary location for trucks with fresh produce to come into the U.S. Inspections there by state troopers since Friday caused such a traffic backup that some truckers were waiting 36 hours or longer—much of that time stuck on the 3-mile-long bridge without access to bathrooms, food or water, industry representatives said.

Polo Chow, a Texas-based owner of U.S. and Mexican trucking carriers who also represents the Mexican National Chamber of Freight Transport, said small local truckers who cross the bridge daily started the strike. They considered days stranded on the bridge without bathrooms or water to be inhumane, he said, and would relent when state troopers agreed to reduce their inspections or make them faster.

Mr. Chow said some loads of fruits and vegetables were completely lost after sitting on the bridge in temperatures close to 100 degrees when trucks ran out of the diesel required to cool them.

Some trucks Monday were trying to find other routes, filling up roadways and forming long lines at smaller bridges, where state troopers weren’t doing safety inspections. Other truckers seeking to go south into Mexico were filling up parking lots near the Pharr bridge and trying to guess whether they’d be waiting a day or two or longer after scrolling through photos of blocked lanes sent by their counterparts in Mexico.

A. Jimmy Garza, operations director for produce importer Bebo Distributing, said the delays from the new inspections have him considering whether to route his trucks through Nogales, Ariz., instead of Texas. If he did that, the cost of transport would be more than double.

“It’s a huge difference that ultimately affects the consumer,” he said. “But today we woke up and said, ‘We can’t have our trucks sit in line three extra days, because of the deterioration of produce.’”

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