RIO GRANDE CITY, Texas (Border Report) — U.S. and Mexican leaders in this rural part of the border have one thing on their mind: Bringing people from the south to the north, and marketing the two small land ports for a bigger share of the lucrative international bridge business.

The Starr-Camargo Bridge and Starr County International Bridge connect the Texas towns of Rio Grande City and Roma to the Mexican cities of Camargo and Miguel Alemán, respectively, both in the dangerous crime-ridden state of Tamaulipas. They were the topic of the first binational trade meeting meant to boost travel and commerce on Wednesday in Rio Grande City.

CBP Officer Andres Guerra, port director for the international bridges in Roma and Rio Grande City, Texas, speaks with Border Report on Friday, July 9, 2021 in Rio Grande City. (Sandra Sanchez/Border Report)

“Realizing the fact of the importance of what trade can bring to the economy and to the local community, I think both the communities of Roma and Rio Grande (City) can really benefit from growth in that area,” U.S. Customs and Border Protection Officer Andres Guerra, the director for both ports who spearheaded Wednesday’s binational talks in Rio Grande City, told Border Report on Friday.

Title 42 travel restrictions — which prevent cross-border travel except for commercial, cargo or by essential workers to help prevent the spread of COVID-19 — still remain in place, but South Texas leaders here say they are preparing for when restrictions are lifted. And they are working in tandem with their Mexican neighbors and want the world to recognize the direct and easy route through Starr County from the industrial Mexican city of Monterrey and how efficiently, quickly and economically cargo can cross here and still be distributed to the rest of the country.

Guerra just two months ago took over leadership of both ports. And he said he wanted to reach out to officials on both sides of the border to bring their concerns, suggestions and solutions to the table to boost traffic on these bridges.

Left: The Starr-Camargo Bridge in Rio Grande City, connects to the northern Mexico city of Camargo. Right: The Starr County International Bridge, connects Roma, Texas, to the northern Mexican city of Miguel Alemán. (Sandra Sanchez/Border Report Photos)

“I felt that it was really needed to hear from the stakeholders, bridge owners, customs brokers, transport companies,” Guerra said Friday in Rio Grande City surrounded by five others who also attended Wednesday’s meeting and reiterated their takeaways from the historic gathering.

Rio Grande City Mayor Joel Villarreal took part in the binational trade meeting in Starr County on July 7. (Sandra Sanchez/Border Report Photo)

“It was a great meeting,” Rio Grande City Mayor Joel Villarreal said. “We are tied at the hip with our port of entry and that’s one thing that we need to promote in our area because it will enhance our economic base and progress and prosperity here in Rio Grande City and Roma and Starr County, as a whole.”

But Villarreal stressed that it’s not only American officials who need to be concerned and involved, and that’s why having Mexican officials, such as the Secretaria de Hacienda Aduana México, at this week’s meeting was so important.

“We need to have a unified effort,” Villarreal said. “Not just what happens here at the port of entry on the U.S. side, but also on the Mexican side.”

The South Texas border city of Rio Grande City has a population of 15,000. (Sandra Sanchez/Border Report Photo)

Leaders who took part in the talks say it already is helping as they feel comfortable to call up Mexican counterparts to ask about weather and crime conditions.

These two ports have had a history of collaborating.

Both bridges, for instance, are utilizing unified cargo processing, where there is one simultaneous inspection of cargo vehicles by both U.S. and Mexican authorities. And while the program is available for commercial vehicles at most Southwest ports of entry, Guerra said what “is unique” is that at the Rio Grande City and Roma bridges it is used 100% of the time for all commercial inspections. And it significantly cuts inspection wait times.

The Rio Grande City bridge is privately owned by the Starr-Camargo Bridge Company; The Roma bridge is owned by the county. But Guerra oversees both ports, and he is taking some of the suggestions made on Wednesday to his bosses at CBP to discuss possible future technology upgrades that could help expedite border traffic and trade in both directions.

Sam Vale is president of the Starr-Camargo Bridge Company and a majority owner in the Starr-Camargo Bridge in Rio Grande City, Texas. (Sandra Sanchez/Border Report Photo)

Sam Vale, president of the Starr-Camargo Bridge Company and a majority owner in the private bridge company, told Border Report he believes that Starr County has the opportunity to corner more of the international bridge market given its proximity to Laredo, which has in recent years held the title as No. 1 land port for commercial trade, even over Los Angeles.

“It shows the economic strength of trade and commerce in the southern part of Texas,” Vale said.

Mexican Super Highway 85, which connects Mexico City to the industrial hub of Monterrey and to Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, is a driver of much of the commercial traffic that comes across the Rio Grande to Laredo, Texas.

That well-traveled stretch of road between Monterrey and Nuevo Laredo, however, has also been the site of dozens of disappearances this year. As many as 50 people are missing after setting out on the three-hour car trips on what local media have dubbed “the highway of death,” according to the Associated Press.

But there are alternate routes from Mexico, such as Highway 54, which leads from Monterrey to Miguel Alemán to Roma, Texas. And the Mexican Highway 40 toll road that leads from Monterrey to Camargo, Mexico, and Rio Grande City.

Mexican Highway 40 leads from Monterrey to Ciudad Camargo, which is the city south of the Rio Grande from Rio Grande City, Texas.

“Virtually all the ports, even though it may be a public entity, they have the same requirements that a city or a county that a private sector company has got. And when you have enlightened leadership at the city and the county you can benefit,” Vale said.

The Rio Grande City bridge currently is two lanes wide and just 591 feet across the river to Ciudad Camargo. But Vale says it has been authorized to expand to up to 14 lanes and he says that could happen if there is the commercial growth and funding to back it up.

The Roma bridge also is two lanes wide and 810 feet long and connects over the dark and churning Rio Grande.

Recent heavy rains have swollen the Rio Grande, as seen from Roma, Texas, on June 22, 2021, overlooking the northern Mexican city of Miguel Alemán. (Sandra Sanchez/Border Report Photo)

Rose Benavidez, president of the Starr County Industrial Foundation, a nonprofit that tracks and tries to spur economic development in the county, describes the Rio Grande Valley region “as a shopping commuter area.” She said the county, located in the westernmost edge of the Rio Grande Valley, has weathered the coronavirus pandemic well because locals stayed and shopped locally. But she said they hope when travel restrictions are fully lifted, they will see an additional bump in revenue and Mexicans coming across to spend money in South Texas.

“We were pleased to see the numbers remained steady in some months and in others exceeding absolutely outrageous numbers that we never anticipated we would have,” Benavidez said. “But we also know that we’re far from where we want to be.”

From right: Rose Benavidez, president of the Starr County Industrial Foundation, CBP Port Director Andrew Guerra for Roma and Rio Grande City, Sam Vale, president of the Starr-Camargo Bridge Company, Robert Vale, a U.S. custom broker, and Angelina Villarreal with Rio Grande City, met on Friday, July 9, 2021, in Rio Grande City, Texas, to explain the details of a binational meeting held earlier this week. (Sandra Sanchez/Border Report Photo)

“We are in a great position. We are in a position of strength. So we need to continue to promote the areas or pieces of the puzzle as to the betterment of our communities of Starr County, as a whole,” Villarreal said.

Guerra, the CBP officer, said Wednesday’s talks went so well that he anticipates more meetings will be held in another month. And he is hoping higher-ups from CBP will also attend to see what binational trade talks between even rural and small communities on the border can bring to the overall economic index of the region.

“Now we have to continue to forge the path based on the conversation that we had that day, which is very positive,” Villarreal said.