Laredo: Wearing a grey-felt cowboy hat, long-sleeve ivory-colored shirt and freshly laundered jeans, Dr. Arnoldo Gutierrez begins his daily rounds by walking into a dusty pen baking in the South Texas heat.
"Hey, hey! Let's go!" he hollers. "C'mon, Whitey. Come here, Red."
Gutierrez's "patients," addressed by their color, are more than 100 head of nervous cattle freed from a truck that just arrived from Mexico, crossing the international bridge over the Rio Grande at Laredo.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture veterinarian is looking for obvious signs of lameness, open wounds, appropriate castration and parasites carrying potentially deadly disease.
For years, these inspections have been conducted before cattle cross the border, but the war raging among drug cartels in Mexico has prompted the U.S. to move some of its operations north.
The change, instituted over the past year at three of the 11 ports along the U.S.-Mexico border, is drawing concern from some cattle raisers, who fear infections long eradicated in the U.S. but still showing up in Mexico will spread before inspection.
Federal authorities say the cartel violence necessitated the change, and they have implemented safeguards to ensure that rejected cattle reaching the U.S. won't prompt any outbreaks.
"I think it's fair to say that the facilities located in Mexico presented a wide variety of risks and threats, and our employees did not feel safe going to those facilities every day," said U.S. Agriculture Department spokeswoman Lyndsay Cole.
The drug war has killed more than 34,600 people in Mexico since President Felipe Calderon announced a major offensive against traffickers when he took office in December 2006. Some American civilians and U.S. authorities have been victims of the violence, including a federal immigration agent killed in a roadside ambush in February along a Mexican highway.
Fearing this violence could reach some of their inspection sites farther inside Mexico, U.S. authorities chose to move inspections to the Texas ports at Pharr, Laredo and Eagle Pass. The sites' Mexican inspection counterparts — outside Reynosa, Nuevo Laredo and Piedras Negras — were about 20 miles away from the border, while the other eight inspection sites are near or at border crossings.
The change is supposed to be temporary, although there are no immediate plans for the American inspectors to return to Mexico.
Meanwhile, Gutierrez, who lives 500 miles to the north in Aspermont, has been spending a week each month as part of a rotating team of veterinarians at the Laredo inspection station until someone is permanently assigned. Any cattle he rejects is placed in a sealed truck and returned to Mexico, followed by a USDA person to make sure it leaves the country.
"We have many protocols in place to ensure that the temporary facilities inside the U.S. continue to provide the same level of protection against diseases as the facilities in Mexico did," USDA Under Secretary Edward Avalos said.
USDA figures show an average 955,000 cattle and calves were imported from Mexico annually the past three years. Texas last year accounted for more than half the total — 511,719 feeder steers and spayed heifers, according to the Texas Department of Agriculture.
Discovery of just one feared parasite known as the fever tick outside a traditional border-wide quarantine zone in Texas from Brownsville to Del Rio could cost the multi-billion-dollar Texas cattle industry an estimated $123 million the first year alone, a 2010 study by the Texas A&M University Agricultural and Food Policy Center estimates.
The ticks cause what's known as Texas Cattle Fever, which results in slow or low growth, reduced reproduction ability and death. In the past, the illness has spread among cattle beyond Texas and into parts of the Midwest, East Coast and even California.
First Published: Monday, May 16, 2011, 14:21