The Mexican Truckers' Dispute--a Backgrounder

You have probably read something (or more than something) already about the ongoing dispute between the US and Mexico over our broken promises to lift a ban on Mexican trucks coming into this country. Recently there has been one more lawsuit filed by Mexico against the U.S. over it. Here is a bit of background about the dispute that can put the issue in context.

The dispute actually goes back to 1982 when the U.S. Congress passed a law banning the entry of foreign trucks. Actually the official language was that foreign trucks would not be allowed to operate within the U.S., which effectively meant a block at all of the borders to their entry. The stated reason was that foreign trucks were not as clean or safe as our trucks. The unstated reason was that our truckers wanted in on the business. Eventually Canada lobbied and got the ban lifted from their trucks, leaving Mexico to be the only dirty, unsafe country on the list. For the next thirty years, no matter what Mexico might do to clean up its trucks or professionalize its drivers, the ban stuck. Eventually having little to do with the first reason and a lot to do with the second.

What they have to do is, when a Mexican truck full of, say, corn or televisions or cars, comes to the border, it has to stop, be emptied out, reloaded on a U.S. truck with a U.S. driver and off it goes. It is a lengthy, expensive way to do business. For Mexican trucking companies, the difference in costs between the Mexican drivers they hire on their side of the border and the U.S. drivers they have to hire on our side is significant and Mexico has been complaining about it from the start. In the suit filed this year they note that it adds an additional U.S. $2 billion each year to their costs.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, when NAFTA was being negotiated, Mexico insisted that a cancellation of the trucking ban be written into the treaty. The U.S. reluctantly agreed and in 1994, when it came to operation, the the U.S. promised to phase out the ban.

Except that the very next year, 1995, the U.S. Congress passed another law extending the ban on Mexican trucks indefinitely.

Later that same year the Mexican government sued the U.S. under NAFTA’s Chapter 20 party-to-party dispute resolution mechanism. They won the dispute, but the U.S. politely did not comply.

In 2001, the NAFTA dispute tribunal unanimously found against the U.S. again saying that, the ban violated NAFTA’s provisions on national treatment and most favored nation obligations. The U.S. then lifted a ban a bit, but only on Mexican citizens owning American trucking companies, which did not really get at the heart of the dispute, because Mexican-owned companies were still not granted the necessary permits to operate in the U.S.

Following that, the Mexican trucking federation, CANACAR began what turned out to be years of negotiations with people in the Bush Administration to get them to obey the law. The administration argued that even if the federation could win over members of the Bush Whitehouse, Congress would never vote to obey the provisions of the treaty or the tribunal’s ruling. What they offered to do instead was to set up a pilot program in 2007 which would allow certain inscribed Mexican trucking companies to operate in the United States.

Yet even then, with a Democratic majority in both houses, the U.S. Congress refused to fund the project. And when President Obama’s budget was unveiled this year, money for the limited pilot project was not in it. In April, the trucking federation responded by once again filing Chapter 11 arbitration suit against the U.S., claiming this time that the U.S. was violating its NAFTA commitments by blocking the entry of Mexican trucks.

Although there are no damages demanded in the arbitration suit, as I noted above, the suit does mention that presently it costs the Mexican trucking companies over US $2 billion each year for the higher priced U.S. truckers and trucks. So, however it will be resolved (if ever) it will be worth a significant fortune to one side or the other of the border.

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