Jeff Plungis
Bloomberg News

Regulators determined to allow Mexican trucks on U.S. roads under a trade deal have downplayed safety shortcomings with companies in a border-crossing pilot program, according to safety, trucking and labor groups.

Trucking authorities violated their own rules by letting one company keep operating over the border after its safety rating was lowered, and overlooked other carriers’ failures to disclose affiliations with unsafe operators, according to protests filed with the U.S. government by advocates, trade groups and the International Brotherhood of Teamsters union.

“They need these companies, they need the numbers,” said Fred McLuckie, director of federal legislation and regulation for the Teamsters, which unsuccessfully sued to stop regulators from allowing Mexican trucks. “They’re looking the other way.”

President Barack Obama and Mexican President Felipe Calderon signed an agreement in March 2011 to end $2.4 billion in Mexican tariffs on U.S. products, in exchange for opening the border to Mexican trucks meeting American safety and environmental regulations. The tariffs were imposed after the U.S. canceled a previous program to allow Mexican trucks.

U.S. agricultural exports to Mexico fell 26 percent to $5.55 billion in 2009 after the tariffs were imposed on products including wine, pork, apples and onions. They had increased every month in 2008 from the same period a year earlier.

Mexican companies allowed into the U.S. under the latest agreement have been cited for thousands of violations, records show.

One truck belonging to GCC Transporte SA de CV, the company that’s crossed the border most often, was stopped for violations 18 times between August 2012 and August 2013.

It was found to have defective or missing axle parts, brake defects, a cracked frame, inoperative signals, oil and grease leaks, non-working lights, windshield-wiper defects and a tire-tread separation.

Servicio de Transporte Internacional y Local SA de CV, the Mexican company that’s been inspected the most, was cited for 44 violations on a single day — that was July 31, 2013. Citations included tire separations and leaks, oil and grease leaks, inoperative signals and a brake-compressor violation.

Its driver-fitness score of 99.2 percent indicates fewer than 1 percent of U.S. carriers have worse records. Almost all of the violations are for drivers who are not fluent in the English language, according to government records.

Mexican drivers must be able to read and speak English well enough to understand U.S. highway signs and signals, respond to official inquiries and fill out regulatory reports, according to an April 13, 2011, Federal Register notice. U.S. truck and bus drivers have similar requirements.

There have been no fatal crashes involving Mexican trucks in the past two years and one involving injuries, according to regulatory data compiled by Bloomberg. Servicio has been involved in three crashes that resulted in vehicles needing to be towed away, records show. The records do not say who was at fault.

The U.S. Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, which regulates truck and bus safety, set up a pilot program to help determine whether Mexican companies met the agreement’s requirements. It estimated in 2011 it would need 46 participants to generate enough inspection data to show the Mexican industry was safe enough to fully open U.S. roadways.

Almost two years into the 3-year border-crossing test, which stemmed from the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement, only 13 companies are participating.

Opponents of Mexican trucks are making “a ridiculous attempt” to impede the pilot program because they don’t want the border opened, said Porter Corn, a veteran U.S. driver who lives in Mexico and publishes the website Mexico Trucker Online.

Mexican companies’ safety scores are lowered by paperwork violations that don’t relate to safety, he said in an interview. All of the companies have a clean record on the most important indicator of all — crashes, Corn said.

Opponents “want every Mexican company to be held to a perfect standard,” Corn said. “They’re grasping at straws.”

GCC Transporte and Servicio de Transporte Internacional account for almost 80 percent of the border crossings and 82 percent of inspections under the pilot program, according to federal data.

GCC accumulated 1,160 vehicle maintenance violations in a two-year period, according to Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, a Washington consumer group connected to the insurance industry. Another applicant to the pilot program withdrew when a similar number of violations was disclosed.

GCC’s vehicle-maintenance record places it in the lower 33 percent of carriers in the U.S. While regulators don’t usually intervene at companies not in the lowest 20 percent, they flagged GCC for added attention because of violations within the past year that were enough to take its trucks out of service.

GCC is a subsidiary of Grupo Cementos de Chihuahua SAB de CV, a building products company with operations in Mexico, the U.S. and Bolivia. It maintains a U.S. headquarters in Denver. Servicio, also based in Juarez, ranks in the lowest 4 percent of trucking companies for vehicle maintenance, according to regulatory data.