- The Washington Times - Monday, June 25, 2001

LAREDO, Texas - They come by the hundreds, lumbering along like big, fire-breathing monsters an almost nonstop parade of huge semis, easing across the International Bridge here.

There might be dozens queued up at one time as federal, state and local investigators saunter forward to examine them or let them continue on their journey. These drivers are Mexican nationals, manning rigs owned by Mexican trucking companies, delivering freight to the United States.

At present they are required to enter and unload their cargoes within 20 miles of the U.S.-Mexican border. U.S. trucking firms then reload and deliver the cargo the rest of the way, to places like Milwaukee, St. Louis, Seattle, New York or Washington.

But the scenario is about to change later this year. At least that´s what the Bush administration has in mind. Proposed regulations from the Department of Transportation (DOT) and its Federal Motor Safety Carrier Administration announced May 1 caused a furor as long-time critics — some who simply do not want Mexican trucks driving on U.S. highways — said the rules were not tough enough to ensure safety and would eventually cause havoc on our highways.

"We´re going to fight this thing the whole way," said Bret Caldwell, spokesman for the 1.5-million-member International Brotherhood of Teamsters in Washington, perhaps the strongest group fighting against opening the border.

Others predict the new proposals will ignite such opposition that Congress might get involved and the expected opening of U.S. highways to the Mexican truckers by the end of the year might be delayed — again.

Earlier this month, 10 Democratic senators sent a letter to President Bush asking him to reconsider his plan.

Granting access to unsafe Mexican trucks "could seriously jeopardize highway safety, road conditions and environmental quality," the letter said.

But the House Appropriations Committee on Wednesday reaffirmed the administration´s proposals on Mexican trucks, voting along party lines to reject an amendment by a Democratic member to toughen the proposed safety standards.

New rules on the table

In this most important city of about 172,000 — which saw almost one-third of the 4,545,015 Mexico-to-U.S. truck crossings in the entire nation last year —things seemed pretty much as usual.

A handful of inspectors work long hours, trying to weed out trucks considered hazardous. They don´t have the manpower to get to most of those that chug by.

Many drivers complain that they have to wait too long, and that their incomes are substantially harmed when forced to lose several hours a day here and there.

"That is exactly what we expected," said one inspector here, asked to comment on the proposed regulations, which are now in the 60-day public comment period and are subject to revisions. "Now we just need to get on with our job."

"This whole thing is a bad joke on the American people," said Jorge Cantu, a retired Customs Service agent who lives in Pharr, near the border. "Everyone was worried about drugs and Washington never gave us adequate funding to beat that element. Still don´t have it in hand. Now the main concern seems to be the truck drivers. Does anybody really believe cracking down on truck operators is as important as stopping the avalanche of illegal drugs?"

There are many factors involved in this current brouhaha, some of them readily apparent, others not so well defined. Safety is but one — but it is the most obvious one for critics to make a case about. Less defined, but often mentioned, is the fear that once the Mexican drivers gain access to our highways they will eventually take the jobs of American drivers.

The first two planned regulations deal with how Mexican companies can be certified, either to drive just within the four border states — Texas, California, New Mexico and Arizona or to gain full access to the entire nation. The third requires that the Mexican firm asking for certification would be checked in a wide variety of areas, including an in-depth examination of its safety performance and safety management controls.

On the safety front, the new proposals led to immediate speculation that the Mexican firms were going to get far more leeway than many American policy-makers, unions and politicians consider prudent.

The new rules would allow the Mexican trucking companies to apply to the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration for permission to operate in the United States. Within 18 months, inspectors would audit the companies´ entire safety program, including records of their drug and alcohol testing, and vehicle maintenance and repair.

When asked whether Mexican trucking companies could potentially have access to U.S. roads for a full 18 months before having to undergo a safety audit, Dave Longo, DOT´s public affairs officer, said, "The check will be very thorough, and it could be within two weeks after they get operating authority, but most probably within the first 18 months. And if it would take longer than 18 months, they would still have a conditional operating authority until we do actually perform that safety audit."

When the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) was adopted in 1994, part of that agreement specified that transportation among Mexico, the United States and Canada would be wide open. Drivers and rigs from companies from any of those nations would have free access to the highways and byways of the other two.

At first the Mexican drivers were to have access only in the four border states, but by 1999 they were to have complete roaming permission to drive anywhere.

It didn´t happen.

Critics complained that Mexican operatives, often barreling along with less-than-safe equipment and with drivers often untrained and overworked, would endanger Americans and themselves. It was widely pointed out that the trucking industry in Mexico, save for a few notable exceptions, has never successfully been monitored, much less supervised.

The Clinton administration for five years refused to allow the Mexican truckers in except to commercial unloading zones near the border towns. Some of these zones are as close to the border as 5 miles, others as much as 20.

Mexico has complained, but not all that loudly, in part, some say, because the U.S. government was lending it billions to help bail out a failing Mexican economy. Finally an official complaint was made to NAFTA and in February an international trade mediation group ruled that the United States had, indeed, breached its NAFTA responsibilities and that it must quickly get into compliance.

President Bush, who as governor of Texas complained bitterly about the Clinton administration´s failure to allow the Mexican firms access, has said he hopes things can be worked out so that NAFTA becomes the international trade entity it was designed to be. His fiscal year 2002 budget allocates and the House Appropriations Committee recently approved $88 million for the construction of additional inspection facilities at the border.

Different standards

As in many complicated situations involving politics, money and environmental concerns, there apparently is no easy answer to this festering problem.

Federal, state and local authorities in U.S. border states have been strained trying to make sure that unsafe Mexican rigs don´t even make it inside the border areas. Many blanch at the suggestion that traffic could double or even quadruple in months to come.

"We can´t examine one out of 10 properly now," said a Texas Department of Public Safety officer here who asked not to be identified. "We just don´t have enough people. God knows what will happen when the floodgates open."

Some see it as a "Catch-22" situation. The average Mexican trucker drives an older vehicle, is not required to keep it maintained, drives several hours a day longer than his American counterpart and makes a lot less money. Those who actually get snagged at the border usually get a warning (in minor cases), a ticket (which could cost their company) or have their vehicles impounded (in case of serious defects, etc.).

There is no way to check on drivers´ records in Mexico. Its database of drivers is still under development. Critics also say there is no Mexican agency authorized to intercept a dangerous rig on the highway, whereas in the United States trucks are routinely halted and forced to take whatever safety measures authorities demand. Even small town cops have such authority.

One of the most mentioned drawbacks concerning Mexican drivers is that they often drive until they are dangerously tired. U.S. truckers are required to rest eight hours after driving 10 and have detailed logs to prove they do.

Though most of the Mexican long-haul trucks are fairly new, official figures from government sources here paint a rather stark picture of maintenance and repair. A DOT report from May said 36 percent of Mexican trucks that entered the United States last year were ordered off the road by inspectors for such violations as faulty brakes and lights. This compares with a 24 percent rate for U.S. trucks.

They operate no weigh stations in Mexico, nor do they currently limit how long a driver can be behind the wheel. However, the same DOT report says that Mexico has made some progress in its safety requirements, issuing a standard for a vehicle- inspection program and a rule requiring drivers to log hours of service.

Robert Collier, a reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle, recently rode with a Mexican driver on an occasionally harrowing 1,800-mile run from Mexico City to Tijuana.

Mr. Collier said his driver was "skillful, with lightning reflexes honed by road conditions that would make U.S. highways seem like cruise-control paradise," but noted that often his driver "was steering through a thick fog of exhaustion." The 46-year-old driver, said the San Francisco reporter, drove three straight 21-hour days, sleeping but seven hours in all and staying awake with coffee, listening to CDs and talking on his CB radio.

The truck, owned by a large Mexican company, Transportes Castores, was a 6-month-old, Mexican-made Kenworth.

But Mr. Collier noted that the whole trip was made with a cracked windshield, something that would have been ticketed in the United States.

Marcos Munoz, vice president of Transportes Castores, said that while his company is excited about the opening of the United States to his countrymen, many other Mexican operators want no part of it. He said that while his company one of the largest has modern trucks and good maintenance, "only about 10 companies here could meet the U.S. standards."

CANACAR, Mexico´s national trucking industry association, opposes the open border policy, saying U.S. firms will eventually take over the country´s trucking industry. Mr. Munoz expects that U.S. companies will buy out the larger Mexican truck outfits and crush smaller ones.

Juan Carlos Montemayor, who runs a 40-year-old Monterrey trucking company called Transportes Pesa which operates 75 trucks, said he didn´t think he would ever live to see a completely open border for his industry. Mr. Montemayor is 38 years old.

He said Mexican firms like his will probably set up U.S. subsidiaries and operate like several large U.S. trucking companies have done recently in setting up Mexican corporations to handle Mexican operations.

Mr. Montemayor said he understood the Teamsters´ worries about safety problems, calling their charges "true, but amplified."

"There will not be an invasion of unsafe Mexican trucks on U.S. highways," he told The Washington Times, adding, "only the most capable and modern companies are willing to do that.

"Our best course of action," he added, "is to make alliances and continue the same way until our economy lets us compete freely." Mr. Montemayor said Mexican trucking firms must pay at least 25 percent more for the same truck bought in the United States because of heavy Mexican taxes on new vehicles and because interest rates in his country are currently about 27 percent.

"How can they expect us to buy new trucks at those rates?" he asked.

Mr. Montemayor admits drivers in Mexico seldom keep log books, but he added, "That might be the easiest to resolve." He said a Mexican driver often works 14 hours a day.

Jennifer Esposito, a lobbyist for the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, questioned how, even if Mexican drivers adhere to U.S. requirements that they rest eight hours after driving 10, authorities can know for sure if they actually rested.

"What if they´re driving 20 hours to get to the border and then the 10 kicks in?" she said. "What then?"

Like Mr. Montemayor, some think the mad rush predicted might not materialize — and if so, it might come years down the road.

"In 10 years we might see a major change," said Miguel Conthas, executive director of the Laredo Chamber of Commerce.

"Even though some may consider the existing arrangements where truckers on both sides deliver their loads to the border and the receiving nation´s trucks deliver it the rest of the way] cumbersome," said Mr. Conthas, "but overall I think it has become very efficient and works well."

Mr. Conthas said he found it "interesting" that the critics raised no voices of concern over the past years about Laredoans´ safety.

"We´ve operated with Mexican trucks coming on this side of the border for many years, but nobody ever cared about our safety," he said. "As long as they didn´t get past the border, nobody cared."

Carlos Davila, a 33-year-old driver from Tampico, watched nonchalantly last week from his cab as inspectors examined his credentials, weighed his rig and complained (in writing) of his tires being too slick and operating with an expired permit.

"I don´t mind making sure everything is checked and I want my truck to be safe," he said in broken English, "but it takes so long. When I am tied up for hours it costs me almost everything I earn all day. There must be a better way."

Mr. Davila said he hauls four or five loads a day across the Rio Grande from Nuevo Laredo and, if he isn´t stalled for hours, can make as much as $1,000 a month. "I am not complaining. treat me with respect and this is a good job," he said.

• Carter Dougherty contributed to this article.

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