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Mexico Loosening Rules for Armed U.S. Agents

Texas lawmakers are celebrating news that Mexico will soon allow U.S. agents to carry guns while inspecting cargo on Mexican soil. The change should help speed trade between the two countries.

New Federal Inspection Station encompassing Mexican and US Customs at Laredo International Airport, Tuesday, March 11, 2014.

After decades of forbidding foreign law enforcement officers from carrying weapons on Mexican soil, the Mexican government is on the verge of allowing U.S. agents to carry guns in places where they help speed the flow of goods between the two countries.

Texas lawmakers are celebrating the move as a significant step toward increasing trade, and say Mexico is also expected to draw up new rules allowing security personnel for visiting dignitaries to obtain permits to carry weapons.

In August, the Mexican and United States governments are expected to finalize details of a permitting process that will allow U.S. immigration and customs agents to carry arms while working in foreign trade zones, U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Laredo, said Monday. The country’s national defense agency, SEDENA, will also finalize details on how security personnel for foreign dignitaries can apply for permits.

“It’s not a blanket policy for any law enforcement officials to go there [and be armed], but it’s very significant,” Cuellar said. “This law has been around for a long time, so to make that change is a very sensitive matter for Mexico.”

The change should boost Texas’ already robust trade relationship with Mexico, specifically in the Laredo customs district, by allowing U.S. agents working on the Mexican side of the border to pre-clear northbound cargo, sparing it from further inspections and speeding its passage.  

Mexican customs agents already do the same thing at the Laredo airport for southbound cargo, but the U.S. half of the pre-clearance program has been held up over the firearms issue.

With the new agreement in place, Laredo will be the first port to experiment with the new, two-way policy, Cuellar said.

“After August, Laredo — even thought they’ve been working already — will officially get kicked off,” Cuellar said. “We are looking at having a big event with both U.S. and Mexican officials in Laredo.”

U.S. Rep. Robert "Beto" O'Rourke, D-El Paso, said he was surprised by the change because as recently as last year, members of the Mexican Congress voiced their opposition to arming U.S. federal agents during a meeting of the U.S.-Mexico Interparliamentary Group. 

“They said, ‘If you can’t understand this, you don’t understand how important Mexican sovereignty is and this will never happen,'" O'Rourke said. "So I'm really happy about the prospect that this will speed up travel times for trade and cargo coming through ports of entry. Texas really stands to be the [main] beneficiary of this." 

O'Rourke said he would work to get the pilot pre-clearance programs expanded to include trade passing through El Paso and Ciudad Juárez. 

Cuellar said it’s not clear if the Mexican government will expand the practice to include American agents working in Mexico on counter-narcotics or smuggling missions. Mexico has long been criticized for its gun laws, and the issue was thrust into a worldwide debate after the shooting death of Jaime J. Zapata, a Brownsville native who worked in Mexico City as an agent with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. He was fatally wounded in an ambush on a Central Mexican highway.

“It’s a step that opens up the door, but that will be a decision that will be made by the Mexicans,” he said.

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