OJINAGA, MEXICO — This remote town on the Texas-Mexico border used to enjoy the distinction of being one of the busiest ports for importing Mexican cattle into the U.S.
But citing concerns about escalating drug violence in Mexico, the U.S. Department of Agriculture last year moved its cattle inspectors across the Rio Grande into Texas — a decision residents on both sides of the border say has crippled the local livestock industry.
“We feel we’ve been wronged. We feel the area is safe and we’re victims of circumstances [occurring] along many other borders with many issues,” said Carlos Nieto, special projects manager for Presidio, the Texas city across the border from Ojinaga. “In Washington and in [the Mexican presidential palace] Los Pinos, we’re a no-man’s land. They don’t know about our way of life.”
Before the change, cattle were inspected and weighed — and sales finalized — on the Mexican side of the border at a multi-acre facility that could hold 15,000 animals. Ranchers from at least nine of Mexico’s 31 states would send their cattle for inspection and subsequent import, said Mexican customs agent Severo Santiago Baeza.
“We don’t want anything except what we used to have," he said. "We don’t expect anything more."
But when the USDA left Ojinaga for Presidio, the Mexican ranchers began taking their business elsewhere, uninterested in dealing with the bureaucracy and hassle of a border crossing.
The USDA did not respond to requests for comment on the decision.
Between 2011 and 2012, more than 280,000 cattle were exported in Ojinaga. That dipped to 68,700 from September 2012 to July of this year, according to statistics from the Mexican cattleraisers union, the Unión Ganadera Regional de Chihuahua. During that same time period, expenditures associated with cattle export — payments to customs brokers, taxes, corral space and transport — dipped by about $5.5 million.
That lost business has extended to Presidio; the temporary pens the USDA established, which can only hold a few hundred animals already, now sit empty half the time. Locals say it's only adding to the town's poverty rate, which is currently about 34 percent, compared to the state’s 17 percent average.
Nieto said the red tape comes from the addition of a step in Presidio, where cattle must now be unloaded and inspected, then reloaded and shipped again for weight and payment.
“Every time the cattle are moved, what are they doing? They are pissing and shitting,” Nieto said. “And what’s piss and shit? Weight. What do you get paid on? Weight.”
He said it could also contradict the government's stated goal of keeping diseased livestock from breaching U.S. borders.
“Now you’re bringing cattle that may have diseases, ticks, whatever,” Nieto said. “Before, they would get dipped and checked in Mexico and the rejects would stay there.”
Jimmy McNeil, a cattle importer who has been buying in Ojinaga for 30 years, said the Mexican ranchers can’t be blamed for moving their product to the New Mexico border instead. “They have a legitimate gripe.”
The towns have enlisted the help of U.S. Rep. Pete Gallego, D-Alpine, who sits on the House Agriculture Committee, and El Paso state Sen. José Rodríguez, a Democrat whose district now includes part of the Big Bend area.
They reached out, they say, because for a year they couldn’t get a clear answer on who made the ultimate decision: the U.S. State Department or the USDA.
Ojinaga has seen its share of firefights, though violence there has not risen to the level of other cities in the Mexican state of Chihuahua — particularly Ciudad Juárez and Chihuahua City. In March, gunmen in Ojinaga killed a Mexican news editor, and in August, two federal agents and a civilian were killed after they tried to stop a vehicle they believed carried people suspected of crime.
Dr. Jesús Baca, the chief veterinarian at the Ojinaga inspection site, said the cattleraisers union and others would do whatever was asked of them to improve security and put U.S. officials at ease. But he added that inspectors don't appear to be afraid.
“On their days off, they go to Ojinaga to shop, their families live in Ojinaga,” he said. “The only thing they can’t do is go work there.”
Gallego said he has met with USDA officials and expects a response soon explaining what prompted the departure.
“I like evidence-based decisions, and if they are going to make that decision, we need to have the evidence for it,” he said. “I am not hearing [concerns] from the State Department; I am not hearing that from U.S. Customs or Border Patrol.”
Earlier this month, Rodríguez wrote to U.S. Rep. Filemon Vela, D-Brownsville, who also sits on the House Agriculture Committee, seeking answers and help. He said it's unfair that inspectors are allowed to work in parts of Mexico that border Laredo and New Mexico.
“This is unacceptable, and it seems to only be applied to Presidio-Ojinaga,” he wrote. “In my opinion, swift action needs to be taken in order to have the USDA allow its inspectors to Ojinaga and help restore the levels of cattle inspections to the numbers reflected in previous years.”
Rodriguez copied several state officials on the letter, including Texas Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples, who often visits ranchers and farmers in South Texas and the Rio Grande Valley to hear their concerns. In an email, Staples said the economic troubles on the Ojinaga border — and the drug violence that appears to have led to them — were a cause for concern.
“Drug cartel violence continues to take a heavy toll not only on our rural landowners but our entire agriculture industry along the Texas-Mexico border,” he said. “We must absolutely stop the cartels in their tracks and normalize trade relationships to restore lost jobs."