Mexico's drug cartels force animal inspections stateside

Mexico's drug cartels force animal inspections stateside

State department ordered move for safety of veterinarians; but some fear reintroduction of new diseases
Aug 01, 2011

NATIONAL REPORT — Increasing drug cartel violence in Mexico forced U.S. veterinary inspectors, who previously crossed the border to perform inspections, to move stateside, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).

Dr. Jim Amend, assistant area veterinarian in charge of import and export for the USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspections Service's (APHIS) Texas Veterinary Services Office, says the change was made early last year following orders from the State Department.

Five inspection ports—Presidio, Del Rio, Eagle Pass, Laredo and Pharr—required veterinary inspectors to routinely enter Mexico, Amend says. Now, the only inspection ports in Mexico are at Del Rio and Presidio. The move, Amend says, was the result of escalating violence in Mexico from drug cartels. The State Department became concerned about the safety of all federal employees working south of the border and ordered the move in early 2010, he explains.

"USDA employees were not the targets. The biggest concern is getting caught in the crossfire. You don't know where it's going to break out and when," Amend says.

While no specific events triggered the move, Amend says, there was at least one case that "really raised people's guard."

"Our employees had to travel through countryside as well as cities or towns to get to those points, so it presented more opportunity for dangerous situations," says Lyndsay Cole, a media coordinator for APHIS. In fact, some of the inspection points were 20 miles into Mexico. "We had heard from some of the employees that they didn't feel safe because of the many things going on down there. Initially in March 2010, the State Department ordered travel stopped to those areas, so we had to close those facilities for a period of time. That really made us look at whether we were putting our employees in danger."

On the flip side, some producers are just as concerned about animal-health threats being reintroduced into the United States now that inspections have moved stateside.

Amend says that as a result of the move, APHIS developed strict protocols to prevent new or eradicated diseases from entering the United States.

Fever ticks are a primary concern, says Amend, but two of the three ports moved across our border are within permanent quarantine zones.

Cattle are palpated for ticks and immediately "dipped" upon entry, he says. If a tick, or any other disease or parasite, is found in the cattle after that, the whole load is rejected and sent back to Mexico, he says.

While animals are still in Mexico, SAGARPA (the Mexican National Competent Authority for animal health) will provide visual inspections of all animals to reduce the numbers of potentially rejected shipments, Cole explains. These inspections include a review of the health certificates, dip certificates and other documentation needed to accompany the animals, she says. SAGARPA then seals the conveyances that take the cattle across the border and provides the seal numbers with the export documents.

At the border crossing, U.S. Customs and Border Protection visually ensure that SAGARPA seals are intact, Cole says. Any trucks without intact seals are refused entry at the border crossing. At the inspection facility, members of APHIS' Veterinary Services perform the entry inspections, and accept or reject the shipment. Rejected animals are immediately returned to Mexico, she says.

While the relocation of inspection points is still considered a temporary move, Cole says there is no immediate timeline for moving operations back into Mexico.