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SANTA TERESA, N.M. (AP) -- The decision this month to drastically trim their hours of operation, which has led to traffic gridlock at one port of entry, will help streamline the flow of international trade, Mexican customs officials said.

Mexico's Tax Administration began reducing hours in all its customs offices along the U.S. border on July 4.

Officials told The Associated Press that the changes will help them to better utilize staff, technology and infrastructure for the processing of merchandise.

But Mexican citizens bringing back used vehicles purchased in the U.S. through Santa Teresa say the new hours have left them frustrated. Drivers waiting in a mile-long line Wednesday told the Albuquerque Journal (http://bit.ly/W18OIa ) that they have had to wait several hours or even overnight to get across.

"This is pretty bad," said Carlos Cruz, who was stuck in line with his used Chevrolet Tahoe during hot weather. "I have another two days to cross, but with this line, just imagine."

Drivers must hand over the vehicle title to U.S. Customs and Border Protection for authentication at least 72 hours before export to prevent trafficking of stolen vehicles. After that, the vehicle has to be exported within seven days. The increased congestion has been compounded by the fact that commercial trucks going south have to share the same road.

Cheap, used and even banged-up cars and trucks from the U.S. and Canada are popular with Mexican consumers. For many, they represent an affordable way to get a car. Others work for dealers and junk yards based in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico.

Claudia Salas, who was driving a Volkswagen Jetta for a dealer, said she planned to spend the night in the car just to keep her place in line.

"The deal is that people don't respect the places in line," Salas said. "If I don't get this car across, I won't earn any money."

A NAFTA provision led to the border being open to vehicles in 2005. According to the Mexican Association of Automotive Dealerships, an estimated 7.5 million vehicles have been imported to Mexico since then. More than 226,000 were imported through May of this year.

Ruben Jauregui, a spokesman for the U.S. Customs and Border Protection in El Paso whose field of operation includes New Mexico, said Santa Teresa is the only port of entry with a lane for processing vehicles. As a result, it is considered one of the busiest ports.

Meanwhile, Customs and Border Protection officials said none of the same gridlock has been reported in ports of entry in California, Texas or Arizona.

____

Associated Press writer Olga Rodriguez in Mexico City contributed to this report.

Copyright © The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Associated Press,

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