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Mexico set to allow armed U.S. customs officials within its borders

LAS CRUCES  — A Mexican initiative to allow U.S. customs officials to carry weapons in the country could clear the way for customs inspections inside Mexico’s assembly plants, alleviating congestion at border crossings.

New Mexico’s border industries, as well as Mexico’s maquila assembly plants, have been pressing for years for a program that would allow customs inspectors to clear goods before they reach a port of entry. One major obstacle has been Mexico’s ban prohibiting U.S. law enforcement from carrying their guns in Mexico.

Mexico President Enrique Peña Nieto last month asked the country’s Congress to lift the long-standing taboo.

In a proposal sent to Mexico’s Senate, Peña Nieto underscored that Mexico’s economy depends in a large part on the competitiveness of its border and proposed allowing foreign governments’ customs inspectors to work alongside the country’s own.

“The integration of production chains of Mexico and other countries requires modern infrastructure and flexible customs processes,” it says. To achieve that end, it proposes “to permit, under the principal of reciprocity, foreign customs officials to enter and carry their firearms at inspection points in Mexican territory.”

It’s not clear whether U.S. ports of entry would similiarly permit Mexican customs officials to operate  or carry firearms.

A U.S. Customs and Border Protection spokesman said the agency could not comment on legislation pending in Mexico.

Mexico’s initiative “is something we support,” said Jerry Pacheco, executive director of the Santa Teresa-based International Business Accelerator, a nonprofit trade counseling program. “We have to keep our claim that we’re the fastest port in the region.”

Taiwanese electronics manufacturer Foxconn, whose San Jerónimo plant sends as many as 300 trucks per day through the Santa Teresa port of entry, has been lobbying for pre-inspection by U.S. customs officials in Mexico. With pre-inspection, Pacheco said, Foxconn’s trucks could theoretically enter through a separate gate, freeing up Santa Teresa’s commercial lane for additional traffic.

In nearby Ciudad Juárez, lines of 18-wheelers loaded with goods produced at maquilas back up into the city as they often wait hours to cross into the U.S. at multiple ports of entry.

New Mexico’s Santa Teresa crossing, which connects with San Jerónimo in far west Ciudad Juárez, bills itself as a faster alternative. A pilot pre-inspection program in the area could increase New Mexico’s competitive advantage, said Javier Ortiz, a border affairs analyst.

“The design of the crossings for merchandise and people has always had the weakness that the inspection happens in the line,” Ortiz said. That results in contamination from cars and trucks idling, long lines and unncessary costs.

“Just-in-time delivery is affected,” he said.

The U.S. is Mexico’s top trading partner and the destination for nearly 80 percent of its exports. Mexico is the No. 2 destination for U.S. exports.

“The more commerce you can push through a port of entry,” Pacheco said, “the more development opportunities you have.”