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Friday, December 5, 2003

Balance trade and security, Ridge says

Louie Gilot El Paso Times

Securing the border while allowing the flow of trade to surge is one of the biggest logistical challenges of the Department of Homeland Security, Secretary Tom Ridge said Thursday in El Paso.

"No one knows better the unique and important relationships between companies, people and families than folks at the border," Ridge said. "After September 11, we made it difficult to cross the border. But it gets better and better every day."

Ridge was in El Paso to start the first express cargo lane on the Southern border, a program named Free And Secure Trade, or FAST, lane on the Bridge of the Americas. He watched a Juárez truck belonging to the program get processed in less than three minutes. The program, he said, serves the balance between security and trade.

In the program, participant maquiladoras, truckers and customs brokers take steps -- and document them -- to secure their factories and warehouses in Mexico, seal their cargo and screen their loaders and drivers before getting to the bridge. All of that builds what Ridge called "multiple layers of defense."

"We are trusting the private sector to do what they say they do. We verify from time to time," he said, referring to random gamma ray screenings and searches. "No one in the United States looks to Mexico or people who cross our border as terrorists. ... But we know those vicious networks that move people and contraband could be used to move terrorists. We look at our friends in Mexico as allies."

The lane started in December 2002 under another name. It was a local program administered by the U.S. Customs Service and trade groups and fashioned after five such lanes on the U.S.-Canada border. Now 180 to 190 trailers from 15 to 20 companies go through it every day.

Jose Chavaria, a Juárez driver for Shipper's Transport, loves it.

"It's so much faster -- 10 minutes instead of an hour," he said.

More than 660,000 tractor-trailers crossed El Paso's two cargo facilities this year, representing more than $23 million in products, mostly from maquilas.

Ridge said Thursday that no chemical or biological agent that could be used as a terrorist's weapon has been seized on the Southern border so far.

Ridge will meet with Mexico Interior Secretary Santiago Creel the first or second week of February to create the express lanes at other crossings along the U.S.-Mexico border, he said. Ridge has been working with Creel on a "Smart Border" accord for a year and a half, Ridge said.

Ridge also met with business leaders from El Paso and Juárez at the El Paso International Airport.

They discussed the United States Visitor and Immigrant Status Indicator Technology, or US-VISIT -- also known as the entry-exit program. The program would scan everyone entering and leaving the United States, and businesses feared it would slow down border crossings even more. Ridge acknowledged the program would easily be put into effect at airports, but less easily at land crossings.

"We can check everybody coming out of an airplane, but we need to do it a different way at land borders," Ridge said. "By literally applying the same rules at land borders, we create enormous logistical problems that would undermine everything we are trying to do. I can't tell you the solution, but I know we need one. ... We have over a year to get it done."

Cindy Ramos Davidson, chief executive officer of the El Paso Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, said the meeting lifted her spirits.

"He recognizes that this issue is all about people. He knows it affects people and trade ... our entire community," she said.

At a news conference at the bridge, Ridge also said he supported the use of unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs, for patrolling the border in desert areas hard to access by Border Patrol vehicles. A pilot program to test the UAVs, which are usually used in missile practice, could start next year at Fort Huachuca in Arizona, Ridge said. U.S. Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., said Thursday that he wanted the Las Cruces International Airport to be used for UAV testing.

Louie Gilot may be reached at lgilot@elpasotimes.com, 546-6131.