PHARR — Just four days after the Texas Department of Public Safety began implementing a program to inspect all commercial traffic crossing the Texas-Mexico border, Mexican truck drivers staged a protest that has halted all traffic into and out of Mexico at the Pharr-Reynosa International Bridge on Monday.
The protest, run largely by independent Mexican owner/operator truckers on the Mexican side of the bridge, comes after the new inspection policy, mandated by Gov. Greg Abbott, led to days-long delays for commercial vehicles at the third largest land port of entry in the country.
With so much traffic passing across the bridge each day, some estimates say the traffic stoppage is costing upwards of $100 million per day.
The Pharr bridge is also the largest importer of fresh produce along the southwest border, meaning many of the loads waiting to be crossed include tons of fruit, vegetables and meat that is beginning to rot as trailers run out of the precious diesel keeping their refrigerators running.
“The drivers have been sitting in line anywhere from 14, 16, up to 36 hours on the bridge or just outside the bridge in Mexico,” said Polo Chow, owner of trucking carriers in both the United States and Mexico who also serves as an adviser to CANACAR, the National Chamber of Freight Transportation in Mexico.
“The drivers — these are owner/operators that cross every day, they got together and they decided that what they’ve experienced on Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday is totally inhumane because they were there on the bridge without water, without food, without access to restrooms,” Chow said.
Reached for comment Monday, officials with U.S. Customs and Border Patrol deferred comment to Mexican officials, but said some traffic is being rerouted to other ports of entry.
“Under established business protocols, northbound commercial traffic is diverted to neighboring ports of entry in the interim,” a CBP spokesperson said.
But traffic hasn’t just stalled coming into the United States. Truckers have also been unable to cross back into Mexico, despite assurances from the city of Pharr that the bridge remains open.
“The Pharr International Bridge is ready and open for business,” the city of Pharr said in a news statement Monday.
“We are aware of the situation in Mexico that is currently preventing the flow of commerce into the United States. We will continue to closely monitor these unfolding events and work with the proper authorities as necessary,” the city further stated.
But at least one truck driver said he has been unable to cross back into Mexico since arriving at the bridge Friday.
Instead, Pedro Valdez, like many other truckers, sat waiting in a Pharr gas station parking lot just a few hundred yards from the bridge.
His trailer, loaded with 38,000 pounds of raw pork legs, was running out of the diesel needed to keep the refrigerator running. He estimated the fuel would run out Monday and the meat would begin to go bad by Monday night.
“We’re asking him to give us a hand, right? To give us the freedom to pass,” Valdez said in Spanish when asked what he would say to Abbott if given an opportunity.
“Look, there have always been regulations. We’re not against regulations, right? We’re conscientious that the United States wants trade to be in good standing. But right now, the regulations are too strict. If we’re missing a bolt on the truck, they’re telling us we have to have our trucks serviced first,” Valdez said.
Valdez was circumspect about the crossing delays, saying he’s not personally upset that he hasn’t been able to cross back into Mexico, but another driver was less patient.
“They say this is to catch people with drugs, but we don’t know where,” Juan Ramirez said in Spanish Monday afternoon.
Like Valdez, Ramirez was waiting helplessly in the parking lot of another gas station in Pharr for word that he could cross back into Mexico.
“But for a few, we all suffer,” Ramirez said, adding he only gets paid per trip. The traffic stoppage is costing him $2,000 pesos per day, or around $100.
Ramirez first got caught up in the debacle on Friday, when he tried to enter the United States, but was unable to do so until late Saturday afternoon.
He was similarly unable to return to Mexico Saturday or Sunday, and remained waiting on Monday.
“When we finally crossed, the state checkpoint was already closed, but we waited two days to cross,” Ramirez said of getting into the U.S.
What Ramirez said about DPS closing the checkpoint at night has proven to be the key to the Mexican trucker protest. According to Chow, the truckers are deliberately avoiding crossing the bridge into the U.S. until the checkpoint shuts down each day.
“If DPS was going to be implementing these strict inspections they would rather sit on the Mexican side and once they shut down, they can cross. That’s what’s been happening every night. DPS shuts down around 9 or 10 at night and that’s when traffic gets to cross,” Chow said.
The truck drivers would prefer to wait in the informal encampment they have set up just across the bridge in Mexico, where they have set up barbecue pits and other temporary amenities, Chow said.
But doing so doesn’t give the truckers much time with which to work. According to the official website for the Pharr bridge, commercial traffic can normally cross until 11 p.m. on weekdays for trucks going into Mexico, and until 10 p.m. for trucks coming into the U.S.
The hours are even shorter on weekends.
However, CBP has been doing their best to help alleviate the problem, Chow said.
“They’ve extended their working hours so that any truck that is on the bridge will cross that same evening,” he said.
As the owner of a carrier service himself, Chow said he is unsure what point the DPS checkpoints serve.
Abbott announced the “enhanced safety inspections” last Wednesday in order to reduce human and drug trafficking, he said.
The following day, DPS began conducting the manual inspections beneath a canopy within line-of-sight of the bridge.
There, troopers have been inspecting every single truck that crosses the bridge — a process that takes anywhere from 40 minutes to an hour, Chow said.
That’s after the trucks have already passed through complex screening processes — including X-rays and other scans — from U.S. Customs and Border Protection, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and U.S. Department of Transportation.
“To be honest with you, we don’t understand it, and I don’t think it’s serving any purpose,” Chow said of Abbott’s enhanced inspections.
But instead of finding contraband, DPS has been citing drivers for minor infractions, like broken tail lights.
Chow added that the trucking companies who work along the border have always strived to maintain positive relationships with U.S. regulatory agencies, and that their current relationships with CBP are good.
“We want to be part of the team, we don’t want to be against the team,” Chow said, adding that he spent Monday trying to open lines of communication with the Mexican protesters, and similarly hopes to open communication with Texas officials, as well.
“They feel very offended by the way they’re being treated,” Chow said of the protesters.
The halt of all commerce at the Rio Grande Valley’s busiest port of entry will have consequences far beyond the four-county area.
Chow said a survey of Mexican manufacturing plants to gauge the economic impact of the shutdown is currently underway.
Of 152 plants just across the border, about 100 have responded. The result so far? The shutdown is costing some $114 million in commerce per day, or about $9 million per hour, Chow said.
And it’s not just affecting Mexican truckers. U.S. carriers and manufacturing plants are suffering, too.
Not only are avocados going bad on the bridge, but a Toyota truck factory in San Antonio has been unable to receive shipments of auto parts that are manufactured in Mexico, such as side mirrors, Chow said.
“This has nothing to do with immigration. It’s affecting us, the citizens of Texas. It’s definitely going to affect us at H-E-B,” Chow said.
The carrier owner had one final thought on the governor’s new inspection policy, alluding to a common hypothesis about the motives behind Abbott’s new mandate that was expressed by many on social media once word of the protest spread.
“I know we’re in a time of elections, and some of us are Republicans and some of us are Democrats, but what affects me the most as a citizen is the cost to purchase products — whether it be gasoline or diesel, or whatever I purchase at the grocery store,” Chow said.
“We’re voting citizens, right, so we need for him (Abbott) to help us out,” he said.