MEXICO CITY - Farmers in this country organized scattered protests Tuesday and Wednesday as the final trade barriers on U.S. corn, beans, sugar and milk fell with the full implementation of the North American Free Trade Agreement on New Year's Day.
Corn and beans are staples of the Mexican diet and subsistence crops for millions of farmers. Opponents of NAFTA said the free entry of relatively cheap U.S. corn would devastate rural Mexico and help spur more immigration.
But the government of President Felipe Calderon celebrated the end of the trade barriers, whose gradual elimination began in 1994 when the treaty among the U.S., Mexican and Canadian governments took effect.
Agriculture Secretary Alberto Cardenas said that 90% of the imports affected by the final barriers already entered the country free of tariffs in 2006, and that the effect on local producers would be minimal.
Still, about 100 Mexican farmers partially blocked the border crossing between El Paso, Texas, and Ciudad Juarez, carrying signs that read "Without Corn There Is No Country."
Protesters blocked several of the traffic lanes entering Mexico for much of Tuesday and part of Wednesday, according to news reports.
Miguel Colunga Martinez, leader of a local peasant group, told the El Paso newspaper El Diario that protesters would "inspect" all trucks crossing the border and stop any carrying farm goods. "Up to now, not a single trailer has passed," he said.
Mexico's tortilla producer association said the final implementation of the treaty would reduce the number of Mexican corn producers and could lead to a 20% to 30% increase in the price of tortillas. It gave no details.
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"We will not have the weapons to compete with the growers of the United States and Canada, who will sell corn cheaper than it's produced here," said Lorenzo Mejia Morales, president of the National Union of Mills and Tortilla Producers.
Mexican agricultural officials say NAFTA benefits their country by allowing Mexican farm products into the United States.
"We have become the principal supplier of fruits and vegetables into the United States," Cardenas said in a news release, citing onions, avocados, mangoes and watermelons as examples of successful Mexican exports.
At the same time, Mexican imports of U.S. corn have risen from less than 1 million metric tons in 1993 to 9.9 million metric tons in the 2006-07 marketing year that ended in July, according to statistics from the U.S. Agriculture Department.
The majority of the imports are of yellow corn, which is used to feed livestock and to make corn syrup. There are about 1.5 million corn farmers in Mexico and most grow white corn, which is used to make tortillas.
NAFTA critics say Mexican farmers cannot compete with their American counterparts because the government subsidies they receive are paltry compared with those given to U.S. farmers.
© 2007 The Los Angeles Times