SAN BENITO, RGV – The Los Indios Free Trade Bridge south of San Benito has great potential as a crossing point for imported fresh produce – if security can be improved on the Mexican side.

To this end, Cameron County and the cities of Harlingen and San Benito, who jointly own the bridge, are working directly with an official within the state government of Tamaulipas to try to get improved public safety measures installed.

“There are two main segments that need improving,” said Salomon Torres, executive director of San Benito Economic Development Corporation. “There is a very short three-and-a-half mile segment from the bridge to the interstate on the Mexican side. And there is the interstate segment between Rio Bravo and Matamoros. All of that area is very rural and unprotected as far as public safety patrols are concerned.”

Pictured at the Produce Marketing Association's Fresh Summit are Ramiro Aleman of Harlingen EDC, Tony Rodriguez of the Port of Brownsville, and Salomon Torres of San Benito EDC.
Pictured at the Produce Marketing Association’s Fresh Summit are Ramiro Aleman of Harlingen EDC, Tony Rodriguez of the Port of Brownsville, and Salomon Torres of San Benito EDC.

Torres believes Tamaulipas state officials will make public safety leading to Los Indios Free Trade Bridge a greater priority as international trade increases in South Texas. He bases his optimism on the participation of Raúl Sepúlveda, the Tamaulipas secretary of economic development and tourism, at a three-day gathering of Cameron County and Mazatlán officials in September. The state of Sinaloa is considered the bread basket of Mexico and a new superhighway linking Mazatlán to Matamoros is becoming a popular route for trucking firms that bring fresh produce from Sinaloa destined for the east coast of the United States.

Torres said it was clear from the visit of the Mazatlán officials and from a big fresh produce trade show held in Anaheim, California, held in October, that produce companies and distributors are interested in the crossing points Cameron County has to offer.

“The Produce Marketing Association’s Fresh summit in Anaheim was a real eye-opener for all of us who want to expand trade with Mexico and import more produce. It was massive,” Torres said.

“We were there specifically to educate producers from Mexico about the Cameron County crossings, specifically the Los Indios Free Trade Bridge. We learned from producers that they are well aware that crossing produce through the Valley is a good option. However, their perspective of the Valley is that Pharr is pretty much the only place where you can cross produce – because there are lots of warehouses and cold storage terminals in the Pharr-McAllen area. What we learned from attending the summit is that there is a lot of opportunity for other bridge crossing points to share in that activity. Why, because the one negative about the Pharr bridge that they (the fresh produce distributors) told us about directly was the congestion and the delay. With produce as a product, that is a real concern.”

Torres said he was “blown away” by the size of the Fresh summit. “It is huge. I was really impressed. The theme is produce, food, and the new technologies that are used in growing. It is really South American growers and North American growers, plus other parts of the world, coming together and really showing consumers and distributors what they offer.”

To ensure more trade crosses their international bridges, Cameron County and the cities of Brownsville, Harlingen and San Benito have joined forces to create the Cameron County Logistics Alliance. Torres said the group has three key objectives.

“Number one, we have to work out a strategy with the Mexican officials to improve public safety protection on the road system on the Mexican side. Number two is coordinate with Customs so that the agencies that do inspections for produce products are all properly allocated for our crossing points. And third, we have to market our region so much better,” Torres said.

“All the producers we met with loved the fact that there was another option (to Pharr) – they wanted to know about the options and to explore the region. There were probably 30 or 40 producers that we met with at the summit and they appreciated the fact that we were there to explain to them that our region has great potential, far more than they probably realized.”

Torres listed the states in Mexico with whom he built up relationships at the Anaheim conference: Tamaulipas, Nuevo Leon, Sinaloa, Baja California, Jalisco, Zacatecas, Durango, Chiapas, Michoacán, Veracruz, Guanajuato and Queretaro.

Harlingen Economic Development Corporation was also present at the Fresh summit. Harlingen EDC Executive Director Raudel Garza said: “As part of the Cameron County Logistics Alliance, Harlingen was happy to participate in the PMA Summit in Anaheim a few weeks ago.  Ramiro Aleman attended the show on our behalf, and he reports that the show provided us with many opportunities to meet produce growers, buyers, and shippers that may be interested in moving their goods through our bridge system here.

“Personally, I’m glad to see that the Port of Brownsville and San Benito EDC joined Harlingen EDC staff and showed that we can each share in the expenses of exhibiting in that type of show, and share in the rewards as well.  It is this type of collaboration that will lead to bigger projects for the entire region.”

Brett Erickson, president and CEO of the Texas Produce Association, confirmed how important the Fresh conference is for his members. “We do the summit annually. This year it was in Anaheim, California, last year New Orleans, next year Atlanta, the year after Orlando. There are only four or five cities they can host it in because it is so big. It is kind of like the consumer electronics show of the produce world. It is a really massive,” Erickson said.

“Mexico has probably over 100 booths in its pavilion. The Texas Town pavilion boats about 25 or 30 booths. We have members with decades-long history at the summit. Paramount Citrus had a big presence. And it was good to see domestic producers and cities like Laredo, Pharr, and Cameron County represented. A lot more importers are coming to Texas Town to see what we have to offer. We have probably doubled our membership in two years, much of it due to the new infrastructure in Mexico.”