NUEVO LAREDO, Mexico -- Since the terror attacks in the United States, Pedro Rivera passes his days reading the newspaper while sitting in one of the handcrafted rockers he sells at the Monclovio Herrera market.
The Mexican curios seller has a lot of time to keep up with the news. Toughened security along the U.S.-Mexico border is keeping away customers, who are mostly Americans.
Rivera can't blame them. He, too, has stopped his weekly trips into Laredo, Texas, to buy gasoline, preferring to spend a few extra dollars on the Mexican side rather than enduring a wait of hours to cross the border while U.S. Customs agents conduct more searches and question more people.
"We're hurting on both sides now," Rivera said.
The delays are not only discouraging shoppers from crossing back and forth to find the best bargains, they are limiting the flow of commerce, bringing the region's dynamic trade-based economy to its knees.
Businesses from barber shops to western clothing outlets to insurance companies on both sides of the border are reporting drops in sales of 30 percent to 50 percent.
Traffic also is being slowed along the U.S. border with Canada, crimping the three nations' effort to create a vast free-trade zone. Before the terrorist assaults, a typical day would see 30,000 commercial trucks and 350,000 private vehicles pass through more than 150 posts along the U.S. borders with Mexico and Canada, the U.S. Customs Service said.
Mexican trucks hauling goods from assembly plants to the U.S. side are making fewer trips, so that a third of their loads remain unshipped, industry leaders say.
Already hurt by the U.S. economic slowdown, plants owned by Sony, General Motors and other international heavyweights now are facing the worst year since they came to the Mexican border more than three decades ago, said Rolando Gonzalez, president of Mexico's Association of Maquiladoras, as the plants are known in Spanish.
Before the attacks in New York and Washington, the maquiladora industry had lost more than 100,000 jobs because of the sluggish U.S. economy. Now managers are facing added costs from the disruption in shipments and the need to rent space to store undelivered goods.
"With these horrible acts on September 11th, everything changed," Gonzalez said. "U.S. consumer confidence has dropped and without a doubt we will be entering into a recession. What we're hoping for now is that we can bounce back quickly."
Gonzalez said industry leaders plan to talk with authorities about using giant X-ray machines and other technology to expedite inspections.
Since terrorists attacked the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, U.S. agents from Brownsville, Texas, to San Diego have been on "Level I alert," conducting detailed checks on all vehicles.
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