NOGALES, Ariz. — Nogales-area produce shippers have sided with Mexican truckers in the controversial decision by the U.S. government to abandon a pilot program allowing truck drivers from south of the border to travel freely throughout the U.S.

Currently, trucks from Mexico are confined to a limited area near U.S. border crossings where they drop off their loads.

In compliance with the North American Free Trade Agreement, the U.S. implemented a test program in 2007 that allowed Mexican drivers to deliver their loads to the U.S. interior, provided they and their vehicles met certain criteria.

The move was vigorously opposed by U.S. unions, and funding for the program was withdrawn for the 2009 fiscal year.

The Mexican government retaliated by levying hefty tariffs on dozens of U.S. commodities, including table grapes.

U.S. government officials say they’re working to resolve the issue, but as of early this fall, no solution was in sight.

In mid-October, Jose Luis Paz Vega, head of the trade and North American Free Trade Agreement office at the Mexican embassy in Washington, said during a luncheon speech that Mexico no longer will settle for anything but a permanent program, according to a story in the Journal of Commerce.

“If you put in place a demonstration project similar to what we had, it can begin, but it can be de-funded at any time,” he said.

“Mexico is not willing to take that any more,” Paz said in his speech. “We need a program that is permanent … and we’re not willing to accept anything less than that.”

“It was crazy that they rescinded (the pilot program),” said Brent Harrison, president of Al Harrison Co. Distributors.

“They should have left that alone,” he said. “I think it would have worked itself out.”

Rates are higher because of a lack of trucks, Harrison said, adding that competition is good for the industry.

“We do feel the U.S. should honor its commitment through NAFTA,” said Lance Jungmeyer, president of the Fresh Produce Association of the Americas. “(The U.S. decision) creates ill will, which in the end is not good for trade between the two countries.”

Mexico has honored its NAFTA commitments, he said, and the U.S. should do the same.

The retaliatory tariffs are having a negative effect on U.S. exports, he added.

The issue has resulted in fewer refrigerated trucks bringing tree fruit or other products to Nogales from the Northwest, said Chris Ciruli, partner in Ciruli Bros. LLC, Rio Rico.

After those trucks unload products destined for Mexico, they pick up produce in Nogales.

“Now you’re having a lot less of those trucks inbound,” Ciruli said, so there were shortages of trucks in Nogales as well as in McAllen, Texas, last year.

“As importers, we’re pro NAFTA,” he said. “We believe that NAFTA works for Canada, the U.S. and Mexico.”

Direct deliveries of product from the company’s ranches in Mexico would be a value-added proposition for Farmer’s Best International LLC in Rio Rico, said Steve Yubeta, vice president of sales.

“We would like to see the program reinstated,” he said.