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Presidio, OJ cattlemen continue struggle to reopen Mexican facility to U.S. inspectors

August 8th, 2013 under Top Stories

By JOHN DANIEL GARCIA

PRESIDIO – August 15 will mark one year since the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) banned USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) agents from crossing into Ojinaga, Chihuahua, Mexico to inspect US-bound cattle at the Union Ganadera Regional de Chihuahua (UGRCH) facility, opting to construct temporary pens in Presidio, citing security concerns.

Presidio and Ojinaga cattlemen discuss possible solutions to increase cattle importation through the Presidio port. (staff photo by JOHN DANIEL GARCIA)

APHIS agents have received clearance to inspect cattle at the Santa Teresa crossing in New Mexico and the Columbus Bridge in Laredo. Both the cities, APHIS says, have security measures in place – including bunkers and exit strategies – that the other facilities currently don’t offer.

Cattlemen on both sides of the border have been fighting to reopen the facility, which has a higher capacity for livestock and expedites the importation process. The closure, they say, has led to a sharp decline in cattle imported through the Presidio port, and as a result, a decline in traffic and business in both cities.

Ojinaga has also experienced a loss of almost 100 jobs due to the closure.

On Tuesday, July 30, the cattlemen, including Jess Burner Jr., operator of Presidio Stock Yards; UGRCH administrator Dr. Jesus Baca; and Salvador Baeza of Baeza Cattle Co., met with APHIS Texas Area Veterinarian-in-Charge Dr. Kevin Varner with a mission to find a solution to the declining cattle traffic through Presidio.

According to Dr. Varner, though the U.S. Department of State didn’t find any safety threats in Ojinaga (despite APHIS spokesperson Lyndsay Cole’s claims that the State Department recommended the ban in December 2012), the decision to remove agents from crossing in to Mexico came from the higher rungs of the USDA.

“I have taken it to the top of the USDA, and I was given clear responses,” said Varner. “The decision for today and the foreseeable future is that we won’t put agents back in Northern Mexico.”

Varner also presented the cattlemen with an importation report showing a downward trend in the five Texas border ports using figures for June and year-to-date through June from the past three years.

The findings of the report include a decrease of 71% at the Del Rio port, which was also temporarily closed in 2012, 66% decline in Eagle Pass, a 29% reduction in Pharr, a 17% decrease in Laredo’s Columbia Bridge and temporary USDA pens in the city, and a 68% drop in Presidio traffic. The week of June 13 saw 0 head cross through the Presidio port.

A chart procured from the USDA Agricultural Marketing Service shows a year-to-date decline in all ports on the border. Arizona’s imports have fallen by an estimated 67,000 head and New Mexico’s total has dropped by 66,000 head. The two states’ declines dwarf in comparison, however, to the 316,000-head drop in Texas this year.

The decline, Dr. Varner says, is part of a cyclical pattern, claiming Mexico has not produced the amount of cattle the importers and brokers are used to seeing.

Baeza, a prominent figure in the Presidio cattle industry and the owner of Baeza Feeds in Marfa, claims that the rains in Mexico has also led to the decline in traffic this month, as the vaqueros generally keep the cattle to add weight while the grass is high. Summer months, he said, are also usually the slowest in the year.

Despite the down cycle, the cattlemen aired grievances of the wait times, saying that the shock of multiple boarding and de-boarding of the cattle, as well as wait times on the bridge, causes additional stress and leads to weight loss and dehydration, leading to Mexican exporters driving the additional 250 miles west to the Santa Teresa crossing in New Mexico, which F.F. Felhaber & Company president Franz Felhaber described as an “artificial push [to the] west.”

Presidio Port Director David Lambrix, who was in attendance at the meeting, confirmed that due to an increase in traffic, wait times have lengthened.

An additional lane and a double gate, which Lambrix estimates will open within six months, will expedite traffic. An attempt to prioritize trucks hauling cattle is also on the radar for the port. Additional staff will be on hand during peak hours, he explained. The port will also be installing a VACAS system, which will lessen the wait time on processing paperwork.

The equipment has been procured by the port, but is currently being held in El Paso until further notice.

Another issue recognized at the meeting is the one-hour time difference between the two cities.

Cattle crossing the bridge usually arrive at the pens at noon. By the time the livestock reaches the pen, the cattlemen say, half of the workday is over.

One solution proposed was to adjust hours of operation on both sides of the Rio Grande. An earlier start to the work day would allow more cattle to come in and out through the pens, and the time of day would help the cattle stay cooler during transport.

Still, the cattlemen say, allowing the agents into Mexico for inspection would be the ideal solution.

Other propositions by the group included opening the rail bridge, currently in the process of being rebuilt, as a port. The livestock, they say, could then be walked across the bridge and an armored vehicle could be obtained to transport agents to and from the facility in Ojinaga.

Until then, the cattlemen will be continue to work with USDA, the Mexican Consulate, CBP, and UGRCH to bring more cattle through the port and dispel the misinformation vaqueros have heard to bring more business through the port, all while lobbying Washington to reopen the UGRCH to APHIS agents.

“Dr. Varner’s meeting made it very clear to us that our problem is in Washington,” said Burner in a written statement. “The solution to our problem is there, too.

We need the assistance of our elected officials now, more than ever, if we are to return to normalcy.”

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