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MCALLEN, RGV – U.S. Rep. Vicente Gonzalez says his support of and vote for the USMCA trade agreement is dependent on improvements in security in Mexico.

Specifically, the McAllen Democrat wants Highway 40, the interstate that runs from Monterrey to Reynosa, to receive a stronger law enforcement presence, to ensure tourists using the route to visit the Rio Grande Valley feel safer.

“I am due to meet the new Secretary of Security for Mexico to address issues on our southern border. I am particularly concerned about Highway 40, from Monterrey to the Valley, and other trade routes in the north that are impacting our local economy,” Gonzalez said.

“Our sales taxes are down, hotels are sitting with empty rooms, restaurants are not full, foreign deposits are down in our local banks. If we want to keep our economy robust we need to create a safe environment for people in Mexico to travel to our region. We want to get back to the way it used to be.”

USMCA stands for United States, Mexico and Canada. It is a new trade deal meant to replace the NAFTA, the North American Free Trade Agreement. It was signed by the presidents of the United States and Mexico and the prime minister of Canada. However, it has still to be ratified by the congresses of the three North American countries.

“On the USMCA agreement, I am undecided,” Gonzalez told the Rio Grande Guardian and RGV Public Radio 88 FM. “What has kept me in an undecided mode is I want to know what we are going to do about security across our border. If we talk trade, why don’t we talk security in the same conversation?”

Gonzalez said he has met with U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer about the issue. Lighthizer was the top U.S. negotiator on USMCA.

“When I met with Ambassador Lighthizer, his expression was this is a trade agreement, not a law enforcement agreement. I told him I believe the two go hand in hand. If we have to pay higher security costs that is a tax or tariff of some sort. We should address it that way.”

Gonzalez, a member of the the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, recently had dinner with Martha Bárcena Coqui, Mexico’s new ambassador to the United States.

“The dinner felt like a lobbying effort for this new trade agreement. We cannot deny that trade has transformed our region and it is a good idea. But if we cannot address security in the same conversation, we have a real problem.”

Gonzalez acknowledged he has not driven across the U.S.-Mexico border for about a decade due to security concerns.

“I have not rolled across the border in almost ten years in a vehicle and I have not driven to Monterrey in ten years. Until I can do that safely and until folks can come from Monterrey can drive to my area safely, I feel really uncomfortable just giving them a blind, free vote on trade.”

Asked if there was any chance of Mexico improving security along Highway 40 and other important highways that lead to South Texas, Gonzalez said: “Actions speak louder than words. I am optimist about this new civil guard they are talking about. They were saying we are going to get 60,000 new police officers. Now they are saying 80,000. Hopefully they are good officers, well trained and well vetted. Trying to keep the corruption down and the honesty up (is what it is all about).” 

Gonzalez said it was sobering to hear Mexico’s new secretary for public security Genaro García Luna say there are only around 7,000 police officers sufficiently equipped and trained to protect the country.

“If we can keep the corruption from invading this new group of police officers, and they can do their job, it will bring tremendous security across the country,” Gonzalez said.

Gonzalez said when security is weak along the main highways in Tamaulipas, the number of visitors to South Padre Island drops. “We are talking about people who have second and third homes on the island. They are not coming as frequently. They are going to Cancun and other resorts with great beaches in Mexico. We are talking about hundreds millions in tourism dollars.”

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Gonzalez said he was grateful to Speaker Nancy Pelosi for appointing him to the foreign affairs committee in the new congress. He said it will afford him more leverage on Central American issues. 

“We are on the border so we deal with Mexico and Central America on a regular basis. The vast undocumented migration that is happening in our region is from Central America. The migrants are coming from Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala, and Mexico,” Gonzalez said. 

Gonzalez has visited Mexico, El Salvador and Guatemala over the past year. He said his visits have persuaded him that the U.S. must make bigger investments in Central America.

“We have to work together to find solutions to this issue of migration. I think this issue could be resolved on the ground by investing in security and economic opportunities. We want the people there to be able to stay home, work, make a living, take care of their families. We need to give them an incentive to not want to migrate. We can do that for a fraction of the cost of the border wall.”

Gonzalez said he is encouraged by the initial security polices of Mexico President Andrés Manuel López Obrador.

“Mexico seems to want to slow the migration down on their southern border. They want to integrate some of the migrants into areas where they need workers. Maybe we can have asylum hearings down in that area and deal with that in a more immediate way.”

Gonzalez said he has a good working relationship with Guatemala President Jimmy Morales and Guatemala’s Ambassador to the United States, Manuel Espina. “They have expressed interest in helping us on their northern border. I am confident a long term deal can be had. If we can improve security and the economy in the Central American countries we have can have a dramatic saving, ten cents on the dollar.”

Gonzalez added: “It comes down to having the political will to say, this makes the most sense. We can do things in a humane way and at a fraction of the cost. We should have incentives for American countries to go over there and start a small factory or business that employs 50 0r 100 people, within those regions of high migration. We should offer those incentives because, at the end of the day, these companies would be helping our national security and our border region.”

Gonzalez said when he visited Zacatecoluca, El Salvador, he saw mangos the size of papayas. “About 65 percent of the produce dies on the ground. I spoke to an American juice company about purchasing that produce. They went down there. But, even if they were given the produce for free, at the end of the day, the cost of security is so high that it is not a viable business operation.”

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