OTAY MESA, Calif. -- He was only dimly aware of it, but Tomas Estrada helped make trade history yesterday morning.
The young truck driver from Tijuana, Mexico, wheeled up to the U.S. Customs dock here with a white truck full of 6,368 women's blouses, 1,657 pants, 3,910 shorts and 3,974 girls' headbands -- all assembled in Mexico and destined for Los Angeles.
They were among the first cargoes of merchandise to enter the United States at reduced tariffs under the North American Free Trade Agreement.
But if anyone expected a rush to take advantage of the new, lowered duties, that did not happen. With most manufacturers just reopening after the holidays, there was little ready to be shipped. And experts had predicted that the free-trade accord would not produce sudden changes.
Trade has been liberalized over the past six years, and red tape already was reduced by other means, said Liliana Ferrer, consul for economic affairs and special assistant to the Consul General of Mexico in Los Angeles.
Nonetheless, the first business day after the agreement formally went into effect Jan. 1 marked a milestone for relations between the United States and Mexico.
Critics say it will destroy U.S. jobs and the environment, but backers hail it as a great experiment that will prove an economic boon for Mexico, the United States and Canada.
The port in Otay Mesa, on a sunny, dusty mesa 23 miles east of San Diego, is normally the second-busiest commercial port of entry on the Mexican border after Laredo, Texas. An average of )) 1,033 trucks from Mexico enter it every day laden with fresh
vegetables, textiles and electronic
parts made or assembled in Mexico.
It was equally slow eight miles west in Tijuana, the Mexican port of entry for exports from the United States, where 1,100 trucks normally cross daily.
Under the trade agreement, Mexican tariffs, which have ranged from about 5 percent to 20 percent on 4,500 U.S.-made goods like computers and telecommunications equipment, are eliminated immediately; others are to be reduced gradually until nearly all trade barriers come down by 2004. Similarly, the lower U.S. duties on Mexican goods like textiles and apparel are to be cut or eliminated.
The warming of trade relations is welcomed here on both sides of the border, though tensions remain high over the current crackdown by the United States on illegal immigration.
Even as trade barriers came down, U.S. authorities were raising barriers against illegal aliens along the Mexican border from Texas to California.
They were erecting a 10-foot iron fence for 14 miles along Tijuana, including Imperial Beach south of San Diego, and installing imposing steel pilings 340 feet into the Pacific Ocean.
In retaliation for that and for what they call immigrant bashing by politicians in California, Mexican groups in Tijuana organized a boycott of businesses on the U.S. side during the weekend of Nov. 20-21.
The hope of backers of NAFTA in both countries is that it will create enough jobs in Mexico to reduce the pressures to emigrate.
According to Rudy M. Camacho, the district director for U.S. Customs in San Diego, even without the trade agreement, U.S.-Mexican trade in the past six to eight years grew 5 percent to 7 percent a year. That is expected to increase now, and Customs is building a large new truck-inspection station here.
The trade agreement means no relaxation of Customs inspections, either entering or leaving the United States, Mr. Camacho said. That is to deter the use of commercial imports to conceal drugs; last year, inspectors seized 9,545 pounds of cocaine and 86,376 pounds of marijuana in the San Diego sector.
Exports are also examined, to bar the export of protected high-technology goods and large amounts of currency.
Inspectors made Mr. Estrada, the Mexican truck driver, go through the arduous process of unloading his entire shipment of women's clothing from their racks and spreading them on a loading dock -- not so much to count the goods for duty purposes as to see if anything was concealed, apart from "Sophisticates"-brand blouses "by Jonathan Martin."
The inspectors could not say what duty would be levied on Mr. Estrada's cargo because the actual duty is not calculated until 10 days later by customs accountants; the shipper is then billed.
There also was confusion among those wanting to ship to Mexico. In a small, trailer-like hut opposite the exit port where trucks bound for Mexico pass through a small opening in the high metal fence that marks the border, Jorgue Lopez at T.J. Serrano custom brokers sat at a cluttered desk and pondered hundreds of pages of new rules he had just received from Mexico City.
Mr. Lopez helps Mexican buyers of U.S. goods cut through the red tape on both sides.
"There's a lot of confusion," he said, slapping his forehead in dismay. "They don't know nothing on the Mexican side." What would the effect of NAFTA be on imports into Mexico? "Everybody is waiting," he said. "It's too soon to know."