A troubling tale: Trucking south of the border

Owner-operator Mark Cervantes, leased to a trucking company in Central America, had made the trip through Mexico dozens of times over the past two years. He didn’t expect the load, his tractor and his trailer to be grabbed by authorities before he even left the commercial zone. He’s still trying to find out what happened. OOIDA member Mark Cervantes wonders if he will get his rig back. For the present, he is forced to wait. He can only ask questions and hope for answers about what exactly went wrong back in early July as he crossed the border into Mexico on his way to Belize, a tiny country in Central America. His livelihood snatched and patience dwindling, he is pursuing unofficial channels for assistance in retrieving his rig. The help given from U.S. government officials has come up short of ending his nightmare.It was on July 6 that Mark pulled his tractor-trailer across the border. His load of shoes, toys and clothing was about 1,300 miles from its destination. The trip was no big deal to Mark. He was born in Belize and came to the United States in 1968. He is a veteran trucker, served 22 years in the U.S. military, and currently calls Round Rock, TX, his home. On this particular haul, his wife, who is fluent in Spanish, and their daughter, accompanied him. He provided Mexican Customs all the documents needed for an in-transit shipment from the United States to Belize. His paperwork was checked and seals cut. Several cases from the trailer were removed and its contents verified. “I was told that everything was in order and as soon as the new seals were put on the trailer I would be on my way,” Cervantes says. Six hours later, his truck was seized by Mexican Customs. Mark was told that a law recently had been passed placing certain restrictions on the shipment of toys, shoes, plywood, electrical items and some other goods through Mexico. He spoke with his broker. Why didn’t he know about this law? What were the restrictions? What was going on? His broker assured him it would only be a short time until the matter was resolved and he would get back his truck. The short period has since dragged out to months. Cervantes has spent almost every day since his incident seeking some way to get his truck and trailer back, even e-mailing President George W. Bush. He thought his broker, America Transmigrantes of Hidalgo, TX, would do what was necessary – pay the fine or whatever else had to be done to free up the load (and Mark’s rig). But he says they haven’t provided much assistance and now doubts their willingness to help. “They haven’t done anything in quite some time,” Mark says. “They won’t even go to the border to talk to Mexican officials.” In the early stages of the unfolding predicament, Mark sought the assistance of the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association, of which he is a member. At OOIDA’s suggestion, he contacted his elected officials in Texas. Texas Republican Sen. Phil Gramm’s office is reportedly working with the U.S. Consulate’s office in Mexico City to investigate the situation. Sen. Gramm’s office told OOIDA the senator was looking into the matter personally. Another Texan, Republican Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison also was alerted. Her office kept in regular contact with Mark for the first few weeks following the incident, assuring him they were pursuing all avenues to help resolve the situation. Since arriving in Belize in August, however, he has not had contact with either office. OOIDA’s Director of Conflict Resolution, Gary Green, said the organization is working in conjunction with Mark to keep pressure on his elected officials and try to get this situation resolved as quickly as possible. “This is his livelihood,” Green says. “He has got to get this truck back.”In mid-August, after a month of waiting and accumulating staggering phone bills, Cervantes returned to the border at Pharr, TX. He spoke personally with officials about what could be done to retrieve his truck and personal items. He got a room at a nearby motel and made trips to the border daily talking to whoever would listen and, again, calling everyone on his phone list. After five days on the border, he was granted access to his truck cab to retrieve personal items for the first time since it was detained, including his daughter’s asthma ventilator to aid in her breathing. He left without his truck and without a clear explanation of why the truck was being detained. Frustrated, he loaded up a car and made the trip back to Belize. He desperately needed to get back to the house he owns there and begin paying bills that had been accumulating. He arrived in Belize and began contacting individuals from Mexico who claim they could negotiate a deal to have his truck returned. As of late August, Mark remains in Belize waiting and hoping for some kind of resolution. While OOIDA’s Green remains hopeful the situation can be resolved, he says that pursuing proper channels appears to be a dead end. “When professional people with years of experience doing business with Mexico tell you the only solution in such a case is to pay off the right guy – you know you are in trouble.” In the meantime, Mark waits, hoping for the best. “I sat (in Texas) for a month without any way to make money,” Mark says. “I had to come down to Belize. I have to pursue all possible avenues to get my truck back. I’m at the end of my rope.”

A nice place to vacation, a harrowing place to go trucking

The differences between trucking in the United States and Mexico don't end at the border. Trucking through Mexico's interior often is much more harrowing than the experience of going through Customs. Owner-operator and OOIDA member Mark Cervantes has made the trip numerous times over the past two years. According to Cervantes, the difference between driving in the states and in Mexico is like night and day.

Bribery Mark says corruption is evident as soon as drivers cross the border. “When crossing, you hope you get a green light to pass on through,” he says. “If you get a red light (to stop) you know it’s going to cost you. Your truck can be up to code, but you can still expect to pay about $300-500.” He recounted one evening he was hauling two trailers of toys destined to Belize. Once he crossed the border he was pulled over for inspection. He was told he would have to wait until morning for the trailers to be checked. “By noon the guy showed up and told me one trailer would be inspected today and the other would be inspected tomorrow,” Mark says. “It was close to Christmas and he wanted to delay me two days. So, I asked him ‘What’s it going to take?’” Mark was told $500 for each trailer would get him on his way. He quickly paid up. Cervantes chuckles at the recollection. “Welcome to Mexico.” Along Mexican roads, it’s common for a truckdriver to encounter numerous armed police and military. They pull trucks over at various points along the highway. The police, or “bad boys,” as Mark calls them, harass truckers. They typically number anywhere from four to a dozen. The weapon of choice is a .45 caliber handgun. Packing their pistols, members of non-uniformed brigades halt trucks along the road. They demand money. “On some occasions one of them will jump onto the running board and say ‘You know the game,’” Mark says. “You ask them ‘How much you want?’ The payments are usually small, about 100 pesos ($10).” Truckers would rather pay than be harassed. “You don’t try to outrun them. You would only make it worse.” The military, or federales, are equipped with AK47 rifles. Fortunately, they are much easier to deal with, says Cervantes. “They don’t cause problems. They never ask for money. They will only ask for a cigarette or a coke. I don’t mind them.”RoadsOnly a small portion of Mark’s 1,300-mile trek through Mexico is along four-lane highway. The 180-mile stretch between Veracruz and Villahermosa is a toll road. About five tollbooths line the route and each stop costs truckers about $30. Most of his trip takes him down roads so small that his truck tires hug both the side of the road and centerline. The aged surface of the road is breaking off on the edges because of the many overweight trucks that frequent the route. Most trucks lean toward the centerline to keep their tires from hitting the edge. Listening to Cervantes, visions emerge of old country roads with semis chugging along – their loads piled high and wide. The road near the city of Tampico, about 200 miles south of the U.S. border along Mexican Highway 180, is known for its roughness. “There are potholes and more potholes,” he says. “Along some portions of the road it is difficult to tell if the road is paved. At one time it had to be paved, but now it’s just horrible.” The most treacherous stretch of roadway is along a narrow strip outside Escarcega approaching Belize. Mark has lost two side mirrors in the past 18 months from hitting the mirror of a truck headed the opposite direction. “It’s definitely a wake up call driving through there,” he says. Signage along roads is few and far between. “There aren’t directional signs to help,” Mark says. “If you don’t go with someone who knows the route your first few times, you’ll get lost.” A point in the road near Tampico requires trucks to make a U-turn to continue south. “The only way I know to turn around is a gas station that I use as a landmark,” Mark laughs. “If it wasn’t for that gas station it would be real difficult to remember where to turn around.” Drivers that do get lost know there’s a price tag on directions. LawsThe rules of the road in Mexico are open to interpretation. “I presume they have laws,” Mark says, “but I’m not sure anyone really abides by them.” Each trip through the country is an eye opener. “Every time I drive down the road I see something that makes me just say to myself, ‘No way, these people are not doing that,’” he says. He describes instances where trucks are transporting people to some unknown destination. “People can be hanging off the truck everywhere. You’ve got to see it to believe it.” According to Cervantes, most long haul trucks are not well maintained and he says there’s a reason why. “When a truck is stopped (in the interior), it’s stopped by the police or military,” he says. “They check for guns or drugs and there’s nobody to check on balding tires, brakes or whatever.” While the speed limit along much of the nation’s highways is 60 mph, trucks typically never approach the limit. “The trucks can only go about 35-40 miles per hour because they are so overweight they can hardly move,” he says. The slower truck speeds also cause truckers to drive extended hours without any checkpoints to check drivers’ hours. “The only time you are stopped is to check your load.”Parking While truckstop parking is in short supply in the United States, the situation is described as dire in Mexico. Truckstops, or places to stop and get fuel, are limited. Along Mark’s route there is only one truckstop, “If you can call it that,” he laughs. “It offers about 30 parking spots. There aren’t truckstops like American truckers are accustomed. They are basically fuel points that may have spaces to park. Most truckers must find a small shoulder along the road to rest up. If you pull off in the dirt and it rains, by the time you leave, the truck might be entrenched in hard packed mud. You don’t want to stop, but you have to do it if you get tired enough.”