International trade through the Port of Brownsville, TX, is booming. 

Eduardo Campirano, CEO, and port director, notes that the COVID year, 2020, proved to be the most successful in Brownsville’s long cargo history. 

“We operated 24-7 and we continue to do what we did in 2020,” he said. For 2021, cargo tonnage amounted to 13.8 million tons, breaking 2020’s record of 11.6 million.

For Brownsville’s final tally in 2022, even greater numbers are anticipated, with yet more cargo tonnage expected in 2023. 

The North American Free Trade Agreement, signed in 1994, was good for Brownsville’s trade. The subsequent United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement, which went into effect July 1, 2020, was also a positive, Campirano said. “I don’t know if it changed our dynamics, but it hasn’t hurt.” 

He stressed Brownsville’s position upon the Gulf of Mexico at the U.S.-Mexico border was recognized centuries ago as an ideal international trade site.

Today, Brownsville is the bullseye as a trade center across the Rio Grande River, and as a global player for trade through the Panama Canal, and with Latin America and countless trans-Atlantic opportunities. 

None of these opportunities have been lost on Brownsville management leaders. 

But already, products from every continent pass through Brownsville’s Free Trade Zone Number 62.

But Campirano said most of his port’s cargo tonnage is exports, with that majority is moving cargo into Mexico, serving industrial towns such as Monterrey and San Luis Potosi.   

“Our proximity impacts south Texas, but we play a significant part in northern Mexico logistics,” he added. “Much of what we import is exported to Mexico,” with a substantial volume of those imports being shipped upstream Rio Grande land bridges, such as Pharr or Los Indios, Texas.

Campirano noted that Brownsville has long been the deepest port on the U.S. Gulf, with a 42-foot channel. To serve the largest ships now traversing Panama’s deepened canal, Brownsville is now dredging to 52-feet.

Heavy Industrial Product Moves 

Campirano said Brownsville moves more imported steel into Mexico than any other U.S. seaport. 

In 2021, the ever-growing steel sector at the port registered a record of 4.3 million tons of steel products moved. This volume, which is mostly shipped by rail, is not in finished products, but Brazilian steel slabs, and other products go to Monterrey steel mills for production of a variety of goods including automobiles and appliances. Finished products often come into the U.S. through the landport of Laredo, TX. 

For 2022, Brownsville expects to handle 4.5 million tons of steel slabs from Brazil. This climbed to a 3.0- to 3.5-percent increase over 2021. It is projected to increase again in 2023 and 2024.

Brownsville also receives imported pig iron and petcoke for shipping to Mexican and U.S. mills.  

Petroleum-based commodities represented nearly 50% of Brownsville’s total cargo moved, with 6.3 million tons. A significant contributor to this is refined oil products, such as lubricants, jet fuel and unleaded and premium gasoline. 

At the other end of the energy spectrum from petroleum is the wind component business, “which is very good,” for Brownsville, Campirano said. Matamoros is a wind blade manufacturer, which exports through the Port of Brownsville to customers offshore and in the U.S. (The largest of these wind blades are 260 feet long!)

Other interesting sectors of Brownsville’s port business is steel recycling through dismantling retired Navy ships. 

The port also has a 9,000-foot dock for serving the Gulf’s largest shrimp boat fleet.

Pharr International Bridge, which is owned and operated by the City of Pharr, TX, is the US’ largest land bridgefor receiving fresh Mexican Produce.

USMCA, Produce and Brownsville

Going into effect in 1993, NAFTA “was a significant event” that helped diversify trade with Mexico. Campirano noted the perishable exports from Mexico to the United States showed the greatest gain. 

Given the nature of Mexico’s fresh produce industry, NAFTA, and then the USMCA, have been most beneficial to Texas land ports specializing in perishables, Campirano said. 

Although Brownsville has a history in agriculture, that of course isn’t its modern-day strength. 

According to the Brownsville website, 86 years ago, the port began as a major agriculture hub for the region, with Texas citrus exports by sea being key.

Initially, a key NAFTA beneficiary was the Nogales, AZ, crossing point. Located directly north of Sinaloa and immediately north of Sonora, Nogales for decades had been the primary port for receiving Mexican fruits and vegetables bound for U.S. and Canadian markets. 

But a very significant shift began in 2013, when Mexico completed the expensive Mazatlan-Durango highway, slicing through Mexico’s most-rugged mountain range. The new fast, direct, safe route gave vegetable growers in Culiacan and other key Pacific Coast production areas a much closer alternative via south Texas to Atlantic Coast markets, over shipping through Nogales.  

Campirano noted that Pharr and Laredo, TX, subsequently exploded to become the United States’ largest landport for receiving fresh produce.  

Historically at Brownsville, ag exports business gave way to two-way trade in industrial products. Although 2020 saw the restart of grain exports of regionally grown sorghum destined to China, creating new international market opportunities for South Texas farming families. 

Brownsville completed the rehabilitation of Bulk Cargo Dock, improving access to the three million-bushel grain elevator operated by WestPlains LLC.  

Located in San Juan, TX, Rio Bravo is one of many modern logistics facilities serving Mexicanfresh produce imports. Rio Bravo is owned by Dallas-based Marengo Foods Co. LLC., a growerand exporter of Mexican fresh produce.

By the Numbers

The latest statistics from Brownsville show that vessel traffic through the Brownsville Ship Channel increased by 11% in 2021. Throughout 2020, 1,671 vessels called on the port, and in 2021 that number increased to 1,855.

The Brownsville and Rio Grande International Railroad, operated by OmniTRAX, ended 2021 with an all-time high of 65,865 loaded railcars handled, a 22% increase from 2020. Campirano said 85% of the rail moves from Brownsville are south bound.  

Throughout 2021, the port registered 438,000 truck movements representing an average of 1,200 truck movements per day.

The Port of Brownsville is the grantee for Foreign Trade Zone No. 62, which has over 2,300 acres available for usage, consistently ranks in the Top 3 FTZs for the value of exports out of 193 FTZs in the nation.

For 2021, exported commodities passing through the FTZ were valued at more than $5 billion, while imported commodities were valued at more than $4 billion.