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Mexico's Trucks on Horizon

Long-distance haulers are headed into U.S. once Bush opens borders Robert Collier, Chronicle Staff Writer Sunday, March 4, 2001

2001 San Francisco Chronicle


Altar Desert, Mexico -- Editor's Note: This week, the Bush administration is required by NAFTA to announce that Mexican long-haul trucks will be allowed onto U.S. highways - where they have long been banned over concerns about safety - rather than stopping at the border. The Chronicle sent a team to get the inside story before the trucks start to roll.

-------------------------------------------------------------------------------- It was sometime way after midnight in the middle of nowhere, and a giddy Manuel Marquez was at the wheel of 20 tons of hurtling, U.S.-bound merchandise. The lights of oncoming trucks flared into a blur as they whooshed past on the narrow, two-lane highway, mere inches from the left mirror of his truck. Also gone in a blur were Marquez's past two days, a nearly Olympic ordeal of driving with barely a few hours of sleep.

"Ayy, Mexico!" Marquez exclaimed as he slammed on the brakes around a hilly curve, steering around another truck that had stopped in the middle of the lane, its hood up and its driver nonchalantly smoking a cigarette. "We have so much talent to share with the Americans - and so much craziness."

Several hours ahead in the desert darkness was the border, the end of Marquez's 1,800-mile run. At Tijuana, he would deliver his cargo, wait for another load, then head back south.

But soon, Marquez and other Mexican truckers will be able to cross the border instead of turning around. Their feats of long-distance stamina - and, critics fear, endangerment of public safety - are coming to a California freeway near you.

Later this week, the Bush administration is expected to announce that it will open America's highways to Mexican long-haul trucks, thus ending a long fight by U.S. truckers and highway safety advocates to keep them out.

Under limitations imposed by the United States since 1982, Mexican vehicles are allowed passage only within a narrow border commercial zone, where they must transfer their cargo to U.S.-based long-haul trucks and drivers.

The lifting of the ban - ordered last month by an arbitration panel of the North American Free Trade Agreement - has been at the center of one of the most high-decibel issues in the U.S.-Mexico trade relationship.

Will the end of the ban endanger American motorists by bringing thousands of potentially unsafe Mexican trucks to U.S. roads? Or will it reduce the costs of cross-border trade and end U.S. protectionism with no increase in accidents?

Two weeks ago, as the controversy grew, Marquez's employer, Transportes Castores, allowed a Chronicle reporter and photographer to join him on a typical run from Mexico City to the border.

The three-day, 1,800-mile journey offered a window into a part of Mexico that few Americans ever see - the life of Mexican truckers, a resourceful, long-suffering breed who, from all indications, do not deserve their pariah status north of the border.

But critics of the border opening would also find proof of their concerns about safety:

-- American inspectors at the border are badly undermanned and will be hard- pressed to inspect more than a fraction of the incoming Mexican trucks.

California - which has a much more rigorous truck inspection program than Arizona, New Mexico or Texas, the other border states - gave full inspections to only 2 percent of the 920,000 short-haul trucks allowed to enter from Mexico last year.

Critics say the four states will be overwhelmed by the influx of Mexican long-haul trucks, which are expected to nearly double the current volume of truck traffic at the border.

-- Most long-distance Mexican trucks are relatively modern, but maintenance is erratic.

Marquez's truck, for example, was a sleek, 6-month-old, Mexican-made Kenworth, equal to most trucks north of the border. But his windshield was cracked - a safety violation that would earn him a ticket in the United States but had been ignored by his company since it occurred two months ago.

A recent report by the U.S. Transportation Department said 35 percent of Mexican trucks that entered the United States last year were ordered off the road by inspectors for safety violations such as faulty brakes and lights.

-- Mexico's domestic truck-safety regulation is extremely lax. Mexico has no functioning truck weigh stations, and Marquez said federal police appear to have abandoned a program of random highway inspections that was inaugurated with much fanfare last fall.

-- Almost all Mexican long-haul drivers are forced to work dangerously long hours.

Marquez was a skillful driver, with lightning reflexes honed by road conditions that would make U.S. highways seem like cruise-control paradise. But he was often steering through a thick fog of exhaustion.

In Mexico, no logbooks - required in the United States to keep track of hours and itinerary - are kept. Marquez slept a total of only seven hours during his three-day trip.

"We're just like American truckers, I'm sure," Marquez said with a grin. "We're neither saints nor devils. But we're good drivers, that's for sure, or we'd all be dead."

-- -- --

Although no reliable statistics exist for the Bay Area's trade with Mexico, it is estimated that the region's exports and imports with Mexico total $6 billion annually. About 90 percent of that amount moves by truck, in tens of thousands of round trips to and from the border.

Under the decades-old border restrictions, long-haul trucks from either side must transfer their loads to short-haul "drayage" truckers, who cross the border and transfer the cargo again to long-haul domestic trucks. The complicated arrangement is costly and time-consuming, making imported goods more expensive for U.S. consumers.

Industry analysts say that after the ban is lifted, most of the two nations' trade will be done by Mexican drivers, who come much cheaper than American truckers because they earn only about one-third the salary and typically drive about 20 hours per day.

Although Mexican truckers would have to obey the U.S. legal limit of 10 hours consecutive driving when in the United States, safety experts worry that northbound drivers will be so sleep-deprived by the time they cross the border that the American limit will be meaningless. Mexican drivers would not, however, be bound by U.S. labor laws, such as the minimum wage.

"Are you going to be able to stay awake?" Marcos Munoz, vice president of Transportes Castores jokingly asked a Chronicle reporter before the trip. "Do you want some pingas?"

The word is slang for uppers, the stimulant pills that are commonly used by Mexican truckers. Marquez, however, needed only a few cups of coffee to stay awake through three straight 21-hour days at the wheel.

Talking with his passengers, chatting on the CB radio with friends, and listening to tapes of 1950s and 1960s ranchera and bolero music, he showed few outward signs of fatigue.

But the 46-year-old Marquez, who has been a trucker for 25 years, admitted that the burden occasionally is too much.

"Don't kid yourself," he said late the third night. "Sometimes, you get so tired, so worn, your head just falls."

U.S. highway safety groups predict an increase in accidents after the border is opened.

"Even now, there aren't enough safety inspectors available for all crossing points," said David Golden, a top official of the National Association of Independent Insurers, the main insurance-industry lobby.

"So we need to make sure that when you're going down Interstate 5 with an 80,000-pound Mexican truck in your rearview mirror and you have to jam on your brakes, that truck doesn't come through your window."

Golden said the Bush administration should delay the opening to Mexican trucks until border facilities are upgraded.

California highway safety advocates concur, saying the California Highway Patrol - which carries out the state's truck inspections - needs to be given more inspectors and larger facilities to check incoming trucks' brakes, lights and other safety functions.

-- -- --

Marquez's trip started at his company's freight yard in Tlalnepantla, an industrial suburb of Mexico City. There, his truck was loaded with a typical variety of cargo - electronic components and handicrafts bound for Los Angeles,

and chemicals, printing equipment and industrial parts for Tijuana.

At the compound's gateway was a shrine with statues of the Virgin Mary and Jesus. As he drove past, Marquez crossed himself, then crossed himself again before the small Virgin on his dashboard.

"Just in case, you know," he said. "The devil is always on the loose on these roads."

In fact, Mexican truckers have to brave a wide variety of dangers.

As he drove through the high plateaus of central Mexico, Marquez pointed out where he was hijacked a year ago - held up at gunpoint by robbers who pulled alongside him in another truck. His trailer full of canned tuna - easy to fence, he said - was stolen, along with all his personal belongings.

What's worse, some thieves wear uniforms.

On this trip, the truck had to pass 14 roadblocks, at which police and army soldiers searched the cargo for narcotics. Each time, Marquez stood on tiptoes to watch over their shoulders. He said, "You have to have quick eyes, or they'll take things out of the packages."

Twice, police inspectors asked for bribes - "something for the coffee," they said. Each time, he refused and got away with it.

"You're good luck for me," he told a Chronicle reporter. "They ask for money but then see an American and back off. Normally, I have to pay a lot."

-- -- --

Although the Mexican government has pushed hard to end the border restrictions, the Mexican trucking industry is far from united behind that position. Large trucking companies such as Transportes Castores back the border opening, while small and medium-size ones oppose it.

"We're ready for the United States, and we'll be driving to Los Angeles and San Francisco," said Munoz, the company's vice president.

"Our trucks are modern and can pass the U.S. inspections. Only about 10 companies here could meet the U.S. standards."

The border opening has been roundly opposed by CANACAR, the Mexican national trucking industry association, which says it will result in U.S. firms taking over Mexico's trucking industry.

"The opening will allow giant U.S. truck firms to buy large Mexican firms and crush smaller ones," said Miguel Quintanilla, CANACAR's president. "We're at a disadvantage, and those who benefit will be the multinationals."

Quintanilla said U.S. firms will lower their current costs by replacing their American drivers with Mexicans, yet will use the huge American advantages - superior warehouse and inventory-tracking technology, superior access to financing and huge economies of scale - to drive Mexican companies out of business.

Already, some U.S. trucking giants such as M.S. Carriers, Yellow Corp. and Consolidated Freightways Corp. have invested heavily in Mexico.

"The opening of the border will bring about the consolidation of much of the trucking industry on both sides of the border," said the leading U.S. academic expert on NAFTA trucking issues, James Giermanski, a professor at Belmont Abbey College in Raleigh, N.C.

The largest U.S. firms will pair with large Mexican firms and will dominate U.S.-Mexico traffic, he said.

But Giermanski added that the increase in long-haul cross-border traffic will be slower than either critics or advocates expect, because of language difficulties, Mexico's inadequate insurance coverage and Mexico's time- consuming system of customs brokers.

"All the scare stories you've heard are just ridiculous," he said. "The process will take a long time."

-- -- --

In California, many truckers fear for their jobs. However, Teamsters union officials say they are trying to persuade their members that Marquez and his comrades are not the enemy.

"There will be a very vehement reaction by our members if the border is opened," said Chuck Mack, president of Teamsters Joint Council 7, which has 55, 000 members in the Bay Area.

"But we're trying to diminish the animosity that by focusing on the overall problem - how (the opening) will help multinational corporations to exploit drivers on both sides of the border."

Mexican drivers, however, are likely to welcome the multinationals' increased efficiency, which will enable them to earn more by wasting less time waiting for loading and paperwork.

For example, in Mexico City, Marquez had to wait more than four hours for stevedores to load his truck and for clerks to prepare the load's documents - a task that would take perhaps an hour for most U.S. trucking firms.

For drivers, time is money. Marquez's firm pays drivers a percentage of gross freight charges, minus some expenses. His three-day trip would net him about $300. His average monthly income is about $1,400 - decent money in Mexico, but by no means middle class.

Most Mexican truckers are represented by a union, but it is nearly always ineffectual - what Transportes Castores executives candidly described as a "company union." A few days before this trip, Transportes Castores fired 20 drivers when they protested delays in reimbursement of fuel costs.

But Marquez didn't much like talking about his problems. He preferred to discuss his only child, a 22-year-old daughter who is in her first year of undergraduate medical school in Mexico City.

Along with paternal pride was sadness.

"Don't congratulate me," he said. "My wife is the one who raised her. I'm gone most of the time. You have to have a very strong marriage, because this job is hell on a wife.

"The money is OK, and I really like being out on the open road, but the loneliness . . ." He left the thought unfinished, and turned up the volume on his cassette deck.

It was playing Pedro Infante, the famous bolero balladeer, and Marquez began to sing.

"The moon of my nights has hidden itself.

"Oh little heavenly virgin, I am your son.

"Give me your consolation,

"Today, when I'm suffering out in the world."

Despite the melancholy tone, Marquez soon became jovial and energetic. He smiled widely and encouraged his passengers to sing along. Forgoing his normal caution, he accelerated aggressively on the curves.

His voice rose, filling the cabin, drowning out the hiss of the pavement below and the rush of the wind that was blowing him inexorably toward the border.

-------------------------------------------------------------------------------- How NAFTA Ended the Ban On Mexico's Trucks The North American Free Trade Agreement, which went into effect in January 1994, stipulated that the longtime U.S. restrictions on Mexican trucks be lifted.

Under NAFTA, by December 1995, Mexican trucks would be allowed to deliver loads all over the four U.S. border states - California, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas - and to pick up loads for their return trip to Mexico. U.S. trucking firms would get similar rights to travel in Mexico. And by January 2000, Mexican trucks would be allowed throughout the United States.

However, bowing to pressure from the Teamsters union and the insurance industry, President Clinton blocked implementation of the NAFTA provisions. The Mexican government retaliated by imposing a similar ban on U.S. trucks.

As a result, the longtime status quo continues: Trucks from either side must transfer their loads to short-haul "drayage" truckers, who cross the border and transfer the cargo again to long-haul domestic trucks.

The complicated arrangement is time-consuming and expensive. Mexico estimates its losses at $2 billion annually; U.S. shippers say they have incurred similar costs.

In 1998, Mexico filed a formal complaint under NAFTA, saying the U.S. ban violated the trade pact and was mere protectionism. The convoluted complaint process lasted nearly six years, until a three-person arbitration panel finally ruled Feb. 6 that the United States must lift its ban by March 8 or allow Mexico to levy punitive tariffs on U.S. exports.

-------------------------------------------------------------------------------- -----

COMPARING TRUCKING REGULATIONS The planned border opening to Mexican trucks will pose a big challenge to U. S. inspectors, who will check to be sure that trucks from Mexico abide by stricter U.S. truck-safety regulations. Here are some of the differences: Hours-of-service limits for drivers: In U.S.: Yes. Ten hours' consecutive driving, up to 15 consecutive hours on duty, 8 hours' consecutive rest, maximum of 70 hours' driving in eight-day period. In Mexico: No Driver's age In U.S.: 21 is minimum for interstate trucking In Mexico: 18 Random drug test In U.S.: Yes, for all drivers In Mexico: No Automatic disqualification for certain medical conditions In U.S.: Yes In Mexico: No Logbooks In U.S.: Yes. Standardized logbooks with date graphs are required and part of inspection criteria. In Mexico: A new law requiring logbooks is not enforced, and virtually no truckers use them. Maximum weight limit (in pounds) In U.S.: 80,000 In Mexico: 135,000 Roadside Inspections In U.S.: Yes In Mexico: An inspection program began last year but has been discontinued. Out-of-service rules for safety deficiencies In U.S.: Yes In Mexico: Not currently. Program to be phased in over two years. Hazardous materials regulations In U.S.: A strict standards, training, licensure and inspection regime. In Mexico: Much laxer program with far fewer identified chemicals and substances, and fewer licensure requirements. Vehicle safety Standards In U.S.: Comprehensive standards for components such as antilock brakes, underride guards, night visibility of vehicle. In Mexico: Newly enacted standards for vehicle inspections are voluntary for the first year and less rigorous than U.S. rules. Chronicle Graphic Sources: Public Citizen, California Department of Transportation and Chronicle research

-- Martin Thompson (, March 04, 2001


Sunday, March 4, 2001 Mexican trucks still issue for Bush

As governor, he signed bill to build checkpoints, but none built By Suzanne Gamboa Associated Press

WASHINGTON - President Bush is confronted again with an issue that he did little with as Texas' governor: ensuring Mexican trucks comply with U.S. safety rules while on this nation's roadways. By its own admission, Texas has neglected the highway and transportation needs of border communities, and done little to ensure incoming trucks are reliably maintained and safe, even though 70 percent of Mexican truck traffic entering the United States crosses the Texas-Mexico 1,258-mile border.

By contrast, by 1996 California had built two inspection sites to deal with the 24 percent of Mexican truck traffic it now sees. "In general, Bush paid very little attention to most border issues," said Sen. Eliot Shapleigh, an El Paso Democrat who has worked for three years to ease congestion and improve vehicle safety at border entry points. A Bush spokesman disagreed. Bush, who governed Texas for nearly six years, signed legislation in 1999 allocating $9 million to build three inspection stations modeled after those in California, said Dan Bartlett, a senior White House communications official.

Under the North American Free Trade Agreement, Mexican trucks were supposed to be able to travel throughout Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and California by 1995 and the rest of the country by 2000. But former President Clinton refused in 1995 to permit the access, limiting the trucks to within 20 miles of the border. An arbitration panel created by NAFTA for such disputes ruled Feb. 6 that the United States must allow the trucks in, but can enforce its commercial trucking safety standards. The U.S. government has said it cannot enforce the standards without significant increases in safety inspectors and facilities. Bush has said he intends to comply with the ruling without compromising highway safety. Still, he never quite managed to do so in Texas.

Construction of the inspection facilities Bush approved was stalled by the Legislature and Bush after a dispute over what sort of facilities should be built. As of today, the facilities don't exist. Shapleigh, the Texas senator who wrote the legislation to build the facilities, acknowledges the work should have been done long ago.

"It should have been sped up and done sooner," Shapleigh said, "because the NAFTA arbitration ruling has been pending for six years and any public policy-maker knew this would be the outcome." Bartlett said there is still time. "There is not necessarily a direct correlation with opening the border that will result in an immediate rush of new trucks," said Bartlett, who served with Bush in Texas. "We will continue to work to make sure not only trucks from Mexico, but all trucks are safe."

Texas officials say the federal government should share the blame for inadequate inspections because it failed to give the state its fair share of money for NAFTA-related transportation costs.

-- Martin Thompson (, March 04, 2001.

Coming to U.S. roads: more Mexican trucks By PAUL DE LA GARZA

St. Petersburg Times, published February 27, 2001

---------------------------------------------------------------------- ----------

If you haven't read a scary book lately, you should really pick up a copy of Public Citizen's 29-page report on whether to allow Mexican cargo trucks to roam freely on American highways.

The cover alone will make you shiver.

"The Coming NAFTA Crash," the title screams in big bold letters. "The Deadly Impact of a Secret NAFTA Tribunal's Decision to Open U.S. Highways to Unsafe Mexican Trucks".

The report refers to a NAFTA arbitration panel's ruling that the United States violated the North American Free Trade Agreement by picking on Mexican trucks. Under NAFTA, the trucks were to have access to highways in Texas, California, New Mexico and Arizona by 1995, and to the rest of the country by January 2000.

Under union pressure, however, the Clinton administration balked. It cited safety concerns. The vehicles were permitted to travel in the border states but no more than 20 miles inland.

In 1998, Mexico filed a formal complaint.

On Feb. 6, a trade panel ruled in Mexico's favor, and the Bush administration, citing the economic benefits, immediately endorsed its findings and agreed to let the trucks in. The panel, however, said Washington could enforce its safety standards.

Acknowledging that the United States faces an enormous task in developing guidelines governing the new policy, Mexico doesn't really expect an open border anytime soon. What officials want to see, they say, are signals that Bush won't renege.

But they won't say what kind of signals.

"I don't know," said Javier Mancera, a NAFTA specialist at the Mexican Embassy in Washington. "That will have to come from them."

Bitter feelings die hard.

Eventually, though, both sides say they will work out the details and the border will open and the trucks will come, millions and millions of them.

David DeCarme, a Bush administration official helping to negotiate the border opening for Mexican trucks, was asked how the United States would cope with the various challenges to law enforcement, from safety to corruption. The word he used was trust.

But DeCarme, who works for the Transportation Department, went further: "It's safe to say that our No. 1 priority is safety."

Opponents expect the worst.

Rep. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, who serves on both the Commerce and the International Relations committees in the House, called the trade panel's ruling "a major setback for American motorists."

Critics say big business likes the idea because it will provide cheap Mexican drivers.

Public Citizen, the group Ralph Nader founded, expects a jump in deaths and injuries, as Mexican trucks that do not meet U.S. safety standards overwhelm the 235 American inspectors at the U.S.-Mexico border.

To guarantee America's safety, the Washington-based organization says each and every truck will have to be examined. To do that, the group says 32,000 inspectors would be needed. Administration officials say they plan to hire more inspectors.

But look at the numbers, provided by the Department of Transportation.

Today, less than 1 percent of the approximately 4.1-million Mexican trucks that cross the border each year are inspected. Last year, of the trucks that underwent inspections, 35 percent were sidelined because of safety problems. Once the new policy takes effect, an estimated 7-million Mexican trucks are expected to make the trek north.

Joan Claybrook, a former Department of Transportation official with extensive knowledge of truck safety, is the president of Public Citizen, which, it should be pointed out, is no fan of NAFTA.

Asked if their report was meant as a scare tactic, Claybrook said the goal was to raise public awareness.

The issue, she said, isn't even on America's radar.

To get people's attention, she said, it will take "some newsworthy crashes" involving a Mexican truck. "I think they have a different mind-set about driving in Mexico," she said. "It's just higher risk- taking."

Of that, there is little doubt.

According to the Journal of Commerce, Mexico has a death rate of 7.5 fatalities for every 10,000 vehicles compared with 2 per 10,000 vehicles for the United States and Canada, the two other NAFTA partners.

Although an argument could be made that Public Citizen and others are exploiting America's prejudice against Mexico to keep the trucks out, just try to drive in Mexico City or Ciudad Juarez or Tijuana.

Now that is scary. _roads__m.shtml

-- Martin Thompson (, March 04, 2001.

U.S. to miss deadline on Mexico truck safety

Associated Press March 8, 2001

WASHINGTON - The United States won't meet today's deadline to allow Mexican trucks full access to American roads, but U.S. officials say they're making progress toward forming a full-fledged policy on the issue and don't expect Mexico to impose trade sanctions against the United States.

David DeCarme, a Department of Transportation division chief, said U.S. commitment to free trade with Mexico was reiterated in meetings between President Bush and Mexican President Vicente Fox last month, and at a recent meeting between U.S. trade representative Robert Zoellick and his Mexican counterpart, Trade Minister Luis Ernesto Derbez.

Sanctions are "not really in anybody's interest and not where we are going," DeCarme said.

He said a timetable has not been set on when Mexico will get a complete policy.

A North American Free Trade Agreement arbitration panel ruled Feb. 6 that the United States had violated the treaty by refusing to allow Mexican trucks full access to U.S. highways. NAFTA called for Mexican trucks to have full access to highways in border states - Texas, California, New Mexico and Arizona - by 1995 and full access to all U.S. highways by January 2000.

The Clinton administration, citing safety concerns with Mexican trucks but also under pressure from trucker unions, refused to implement the provisions. So the 5 million Mexican trucks entering each year are limited to a 20-mile zone north of the border, where they transfer their loads to U.S. trucks.

Copyright 2000, All rights reserved.

-- Martin Thompson (, March 08, 2001.

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