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September Terror Attacks Tighten US-Mexico Border - 2001-12-17

The terrorist attacks of September 11 led to an unprecedented tightening of security along the United States' borders with Canada and Mexico. The high-level alert remains in effect, and slowdowns at border crossings have had a negative impact on border economies, especially in Mexico. Officials are struggling to balance the war against terrorism with the need to keep commerce alive.

In the three months since the attacks in New York and Washington, officials in both Canada and Mexico have offered their help in trying to prevent terrorists from entering the United States through their nations. Both countries have also been receptive to the idea of creating a North American security zone.

Mexican Interior Minister Santiago Creel says the main focus for the moment is on shared intelligence and increased vigilance at all airports, docks and border crossings. He says Mexico is taking steps to detect and detain anyone entering the country who may be associated with the terrorist attacks on September 11, or anyone who belongs to any terrorist group.

At the same time, U.S. Customs agents are more thoroughly checking vehicles coming over the border, and agents from the Immigration and Naturalization Service, or INS, are taking a closer look at each person coming across.

The INS spokesperson for the El Paso, Texas sector, Leticia Zamarrippa, says the high-level alert has led to delays at border crossings. Ms. Zamarrippa says, although most people have been supportive, business owners are worried. "The longer waiting times are an inconvenience. However, the public has been very understanding. They know why these added security measures are needed, and they have expressed their concern as well," she says. "The business community, on both sides, I would say, is concerned, and they have seen sales decreasing. Here, in El Paso, a lot of the merchants have reported that their sales have decreased."

On the other side of the Rio Grande river from El Paso, the city of Juarez has grown to over a million people in recent years because of the employment offered at maquiladoras. These are plants that import some raw materials from the United States, assemble them into various components and products and then send them back over the border. Thousands of jobs have been lost in the maquiladora sector in recent months, and the situation could get worse.

Mexican political scientist Tony Payan, who lives in Jaurez and crosses the border each day to teach at the University of Texas at El Paso, says the economic impact is being felt all along the border and beyond. He says factories in Juarez may lose market share in the United States because of the delays in getting their products intended for immediate delivery through the inspection lines at the border crossings. "Many companies provide goods to other manufacturing companies in the United States for just-in-time [immediate] processes," he says. "Where is the just-in-time, when it takes two or three hours just to cross the border? You cannot get as many trucks across each day as you want to. That whole idea of total quality management and just-in-time systems goes out the window when you close the border like that."

In recent weeks, both U.S. Customs and Immigration officials have implemented new rules whereby only suspicious persons or vehicles are thoroughly inspected. This has helped speed the process, and allowed commercial vehicles to cross over much faster. National Guard troops have also been sent to help inspectors with their work. But as long as the terror threat exists, officials say, the stepped up enforcement at the border will continue.

Part of VOA's Year End Series for 2001