Federal veterinarians worry about safety at new Mexican facility
A different sort of border war is brewing between USDA and some of its federal veterinarians. But it’s not where the border is that’s the issue, it’s crossing it that concerns the veterinarians.
Several Texas-based federal veterinarians charged with inspecting imports of live Mexican cattle into the U.S. are wary of traveling to, and working in, a newly-built facility just south of the Texas border in Nuevo Len, Mexico. The veterinarians cite safety concerns supported by the fact the U.S. State Department, FBI and other governmental groups warn against non-essential travel into the region due to armed robberies, carjacking, kidnapping, and murders of U.S. citizens by drug cartels. Despite the inspectors’ concerns, the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) calls the facility a low-risk location.
The new inspection facility is roughly two miles from the Texas border at the Columbia Bridge and 30 miles northwest of the Mexican border town Nuevo Laredo. The facilities reportedly include a state-of-the-art safe room, have roughly 100 acres of cattle pens, and the entire complex is bounded by safety fencing, is situated near a Mexican military garrison and is protected by armed Mexican military and police forces.
After a meeting with USDA officials to discuss the safety measures, a group of the veterinarians agreed to tour the Mexican facilities Thursday, Sept. 13. They were reportedly not convinced of their safety enough to be willing to make the journey by themselves as would be required on a daily basis in working there.
As of yet, nothing has been decided. The veterinarians and other affected personnel have not yet pointedly refused to work at the facility and USDA and APHIS officials have not yet made it an order. If it comes to that and the veterinarians refuse to go, they face potential disciplinary action which could include suspension or being fired for insubordination.
Safe or not?
Bill Hughes, a lawyer for National Association of Federal Veterinarians (NAFV) which represents the veterinarians, raised numerous questions about the supposed safety of the location.
Issues with the facility itself, as well as the area, all contribute to the veterinarians’ safety concerns. In a letter regarding the matter, he and Dr. Mike Gilsdorf, executive vice president of NAFV, wrote “the [USDA] will be placing these employees into an ongoing life threatening situation” in making them work at the Mexican facility.
In speaking with WLJ, Hughes shared numerous descriptions of the facility which cast significant doubt on claims of its safety. Among these details—some shared with him by some of the affected personnel who wished to remain anonymous for fear of reprisal— was a Mexican soldier supposedly on guard duty asleep during a shift, no road blocks or any kind of protections in-transit to the facility, the facility being open to numerous unscreened and unknown persons and vehicles, and large weapon emplacements around the facility ostensibly to protect it if the need arose.
Hughes also pointed out the Mexican military garrison—often described both in the mainstream press as well as to the veterinarians as adjacent to the facility— is more accurately almost a mile away, making its usefulness in keeping the inspectors safe questionable.
Bounding the facility is the town of Columbia with a 2010 estimated population of 510 to the northeast, and Highway 2 to the southwest. Both of these details pose safety concerns according to the veterinarians, according to NAFV.
Highway 2 is separated from the facility’s southerly border by a little over 200 yards of ground covered with mesquite trees. The highway is called very dangerous and is generally considered off limits for U.S. vehicles. Both that highway specifically and the area in general have advisories out on them from the U.S. departments of State, Homeland Security, the FBI and local U.S. law enforcement warning American citizens from traveling in the area.
The town of Columbia, though small, is reportedly home to members of the Los Zetas drug cartel at least. One of the affected personnel pointed out that Cairo Moorman of the U.S. consulate in Mexico more or less acknowledged the drug cartels use various legal commodities such as feeder cattle as a means of laundering drug money, meaning the veterinarians and other American civilians who might have to work at the facility could be placed in contact with cartel members or in the way of cartel interests.
“The over-riding question posed was how USDA APHIS [Veterinary Services] could possibly make a determination that such assignments were safe in contrast to the travel advisories and reports of violence, and force civilian employees to go into harm’s way on threat of being fired,” read the NAFV letter.
Both U.S. and Mexican officials have questioned the grounds for the veterinarians’ and others’ safety concerns. Both claim the facility is safe and that the veterinarians’ worries are based on exaggerated reports of the violence in the area.
Despite this, Moorman reportedly acknowledged at the Sept. 13 tour that several “bad guys” were killed roughly six miles from the new facility a few days prior to the tour, contrary to early claims that no violence had occurred within 15-20 miles from the facility.
Why now, why here?
“The real question is why the USDA is so adamant these people go into Mexican facilities,” stressed Hughes.
“I don’t know the reason they have to go back across,” said Dr. Gilsdorf. “There are facilities on the U.S. side and with all the violence, [the veterinarians] don’t want to be sent there.”
In the past, U.S.-bound Mexican cattle were inspected in Mexican facilities to prevent cattle infected with fever ticks, tuberculosis, foot and mouth disease, and other communicable cattle ailments from reaching the American herd.
In 2010, however, many of the Mexican facilities were shut down permanently or for extended periods as conflicts and violence from drug cartels increased. In their place, inspection facilities in the U.S. were created and used. Those south-of-the-border facilities which did remain in operation were either in very low-risk areas or experienced repeated closures and re-openings throughout that time.
Hughes said he’s heard a couple supposed reasons why USDA wants to send inspection personnel into Mexico.
“One is the desire of the U.S. government not to bring in potentially diseased cattle into the U.S. But we’ve done that for years now. The other is [our] facilities aren’t big enough to handle the influx of Mexican cattle.”
According to USDA records, the average importation of live cattle from Mexico from 2006 to 2011 was roughly 92,000 head a month across all classes of cattle, or 39,000 head a month for feeder cattle. This includes information from 2011 which was unusually high because of the liquidation of the Mexican herd due to drought and fires.
Monthly numbers for both total and feeder cattle imports from Mexico for 2012 so far have been above these averages for similar reasons, but it has been pointed out that these elevated levels cannot be sustained for long. The Mexican herd is close to exhaustion, if not already there. The number of Mexican cattle coming through the area in question usually ranges from 10,000 to 20,000 head, according to several reports.
The new facilities are supposedly larger and more efficient than its U.S. counterparts. Hughes, however, was unconvinced, saying the test run of cattle through the facilities conducted during the tour showed such things as slower processing rates and a leaking tick dip tank, among other issues.
Another possibility was brought up in the NAFV letter.
“NAFV has learned that the USDA Office of Inspector General is investigating allegations of improper involvement by [USDA Under Secretary Edward Avelos], including that… he personally told a member of the Mexican cattlemen’s association that is constructing the Columbia Bridge facility should continue and that he assured the Mexican cattlemen that when completed the facility would be staffed with USDA personnel.”
Ultimately, the question of why federal veterinarians are being asked to work across the border has been left unanswered and a mystery.
“We don’t know yet,” said Dr. Gilsdorf, when asked why USDA is making this move now. “We’ve asked that and they haven’t given us an answer.”
“Last I heard—but nothing’s absolute—is no one wants to go,” said Hughes, speaking of the veterinarians.
So far, USDA has maintained mostly voluntary language on the matter with the veterinarians, asking or inviting them to the Mexican facility, and no orders have been made. If that changes and the veterinarians refuse to go, however, they could face disciplinary action.
“They’ve already been threatened with disciplinary action up to and including removal if they refuse to go,” reported Hughes. He said, however, there are two main situations in which a civilian employee can refuse a government order. One is if the order is illegal and the other is if the order would risk life and limb.
NAFV is pointedly of the opinion an order to work at the Mexican facility would risk life and limb of the employees. The matter of whether such an order would be legal is a bit murkier. After review of existing statutes and the job descriptions of the federal veterinarians, an Office of General Council attorney working with APHIS concluded nothing neither requiring nor prohibiting foreign assignments of the inspectors exists.
Hughes reported that, if USDA does make a move to suspend or remove the inspectors should they refuse an order to work in the Mexican facility, the procedural requirements allow appeal to the Merit Systems Protection Board. He said if it came to that, the appeals would likely be heard by local administrative judges.
“I cannot imagine any administrative judge who’s familiar with the violence of the border who would think it’s not a life-threatening situation to go across the border,” said Hughes. — Kerry Halladay, WLJ Editor