Federal officials said this week they have no plans to reopen a cattle inspection site across the border from Presidio, citing continuing safety concerns in the Mexican town of Ojinaga, Chihuahua.
Federal inaction has prompted local officials and ranchers from the tiny outpost about 70 miles south of Marfa to make their own plans to increase security, which they said they will submit to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Ranchers and business leaders in the cities on both sides of the Rio Grande say the decision last year by the Agriculture Department to withdraw its cattle inspectors from Mexico has cost the region millions of dollars. The agency has erected temporary pens on Texas soil, but Mexican ranchers accustomed to having their product inspected in Mexico are going elsewhere. Before the closure, ranchers from nine of Mexico's 31 states brought cattle through the Presidio crossing.
“They are saying ‘it’s a safety issue and we’re never going back,’ and that’s ludicrous,” said Carlos Nieto, the city of Presidio’s special projects manager.
Locals say the area is safer than most border zones and that U.S. inspectors were offered Mexican military escorts but rejected them.
The USDA stands by its decision, though.
“At a couple of the sites, there have been specific instances that make our employees feel uncomfortable,” said Lyndsay Cole, a spokeswoman for the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, or APHIS.
Cole declined to give details about the instances or whether they occurred in or near Ojinaga, but she said USDA considers the “big picture,” including an array of other concerns, like U.S. State Department travel warnings. The most recent travel advisory for Mexico issued in July urges U.S. citizens to defer “nonessential” travel to the four states that border Texas: Chihuahua, Coahuila, Nuevo León and Tamaulipas.
Other sites in the Mexican states of Tamaulipas and Coahuila are closed as well. The only Mexican inspection site on the Texas-Mexico border that remains open is at the Colombia Solidarity Bridge in Nuevo León, which shares a sliver of the border with Webb County. Livestock there is inspected at the port of entry, rather than requiring travel into areas of Mexico that the U.S. government deems unsafe. There is also an inspection site in Laredo that was erected when the facility across the border in Nuevo Laredo closed. The two facilities operate on alternating days.
“We had direct input into the building of that facility,” Cole said.
Between 2011 and 2012, about 280,000 cattle were exported at the Mexican site in Ojinaga. That fell to 68,700 from September 2012 to July of this year, according to statistics from the Chihuahua cattle raisers union, the Unión Ganadera Regional de Chihuahua. Union officials estimate the loss of additional revenue and income from taxes and industry support businesses — like hotels, feed stores and transport services — at more than $5 million.
Cole said the agency is discussing closures with stakeholders all along the border, not just in Presidio. But Nieto said the communication has been minimal and that it ground to a halt during the recent 16-day government shutdown.
In response, local entities are working on a draft proposal that includes more security to take to the USDA with the hopes of having the inspection site reopened before cattle season begins. Nieto said most importing occurs from November to April.
The plan is being developed to maximize security in case there is a violent incident and a need to quickly get people to safety in the event the inspection site is reopened, Nieto said. The draft includes designs for holding rooms at the inspection site, which he said are common in embassies across the globe, and for various escape routes.
“Since they don’t tell us what they want, the village idiots” are creating the plan, Nieto said.
Cole said violence isn't the only factor that has affected the cattle import industry overall, which dipped significantly during the 2013 fiscal year.
“Total cattle crossing through these ports is down 59 percent from FY 2012,” she said. “USDA inspections themselves have not influenced the number of cattle crossing at the ports of entry. Rather, U.S. imports of Mexican cattle are cyclical in nature.”
That cycle is affected by weather conditions and droughts, cattle prices in the U.S. and the value of the peso against foreign currencies.
Even accounting for those factors, Nieto said, Presidio is still being singled out.
“It’s an economic and political thing,” he said. Border security is a red herring, he said, and is being used to single out the poor ranching community. "Enough is enough. We're getting desperate."