By Mariana Martinez
First came the long lines to get into Tijuana. Then Mexican customs or “aduanas” fired thousands of agents across Mexico to be replaced with wide-eyed 18 year olds with little work experience, and now, the plan to start inspecting all vehicles going south has come to a halt and could start working in late September with some modifications.
What the hell is happening?
Well, what we border folks have been experiencing is part of a total transformation of the Mexican customs system, aimed to hinder tax evasion, contraband and informal import of goods, a common practice across the Mexican border aided by the infamous corruption of public officials.
In order to make changes, the federal government is looking to go from close to 0% inspection to 100% inspection of travelers and cars going into Mexico, with a system called SIAVE, as it is currently planed all cars would have to stop for a period of 7 to 14 seconds (depending on who you ask) in order to record weight, model and license plates as well as get an X ray scan.
But there are many technological and human hurdles to overcome; including the outspoken anger of the border business community that has lashed out against what is perceived as an inefficient plan that will not get money or guns going for “narcos” but will inhibit legitimate travel and commerce across the Californias instead.
Claudio Arreola, president of the Electronic, Information and Telecomunication National Chamber (Canieti) for the Mexican Northeast, considers the insistence of putting SIAVE to work without the proper infrastructure is just stubborn.
“Why not start with a 30% random inspection? It will be a 30% improvement from what its being done now, and it would allow authorities to streamline the process without affecting the border community; we are already hit hard by the economy and violence” said Arreola.
Such “stubbornness” has to do with the political timing of putting together a strategy to stop the flow of guns and dirty money to Mexican drug cartels.
The process of inspections at the port of entry is suppose to take around 7 seconds, but in the ports of entry where it is already in effect, the standard time of inspection is around 12 seconds.
Tijuana Customs Chief Carlos Ramírez Escoto explains the long wait border residents have been suffering at the border are not exclusively SIA-VES fault, -in fact, the system is not yet installed or working- so there are other factors, like the large number of cars, to blame for the backup.
But just ask around, and the construction around SIAVE certainly contributed to the long wait times to enter Mexico, that just a few weeks ago ranged from 2 to 3 hours during peak hours when thousands of international commuters were going back home to Tijuana.
But Ramirez denies accusations that the plan was “designed by a chilango [México city resident] behind a desk” as it is said by some critics, and adds he is doing all he can to incorporate business leaders’ suggestions for changing the plan.
The plan has already been modified; installing SIAVE at night and one lane at a time, the start date for the program has been delayed until late September, and now includes a pilot phase.
“I’m committed to taking down the inspection time to 5 seconds per car” Ramirez promised.
But despite Ramirez’ good will, there are still serious infrastructure problems when you have a 7 lane freeway turning into a 3 lane road where lanes are partially obstructed by Marines and customs agents.
A recent study commissioned by the Business Citizens Council (CCE) calculates that just an 8 second stop for each car can back up the flow for up to 4 hours in peak hours (like weekday afternoons and holiday weekends), and wait times could go up to 16 hours with a 14 second inspection.
The CCE has proposed limiting inspection to 57% and 32% during peak hours to stop the cars don’t form long lines and obstruct freeway access.
But Jason Wells, President of the San Ysidro Chamber of Commerce and founder of the Binational Border Commerce Chamber, goes even further, and argues that SIAVE should incorporate better technology and true team-work with US officials.
Wells explains there is a new X ray scan technology available, that can inspect moving cars; it is faster, more accurate and it could be installed 200 yards from the border (in the US side where the cameras and concrete divides are located) so Mexican customs can have the information of the car by the time it gets to the gate.
All of this, without stopping traffic at all.
This would cost about a million dollars per lane and it has already been included in a formal proposal to the Mexican government.
“The other issue is coordination. Everyone in the US from Obama and Napolitano to Bersin, have said they trust Mexico and are willing to work together with them. This would be a great project to start doing exactly that”, said Wells.
The New Face of Aduana
The Customs overhaul is not all about new technology or data gathering, but it includes a change in agents hoping to catch tax-evaders as well as fight organized crime operations.
Over a thousand customs agents where suddenly fired last week all over Mexico and quickly replaced by 1400 young faces whose training includes the use of weapons, a reflection of the institutional change.
The new agents are called Exterior Officials and go beyond customs laws to include intelligence training and severe background checks.
88 out of the 1400 new agents were assigned to Tijuana Customs, and placed not only at ports of entry but also at the airport.
Roberto Quijano Sosa, Tijuana business leader and Copa-rmex Tijuana president considers this a good step towards a meaningful “clean up” exercise and better personnel control measures.
“There is no doubt in my mind that this [SIAVE] alone would not make a mark in the control of arms flow if corruption is not fought and more customs surveillance is places in bus stations and other entry points, and equal attention is put in the prevention of addiction; so Im hopeful for SIAVE but it has to go hand in hand with so much more”, said Quijano.
In the meantime, border residents can enjoy a period of relative rest from long border waits in the weeks to come, and we’ll just have to wait until SIAVE goes into effect and then evaluate the system’s performance.