By Charlie Morasch
Only seconds into the phone call with Rapid Transfer Xpress, the San Diego-based carrier tells you it markets its cross-border trucking operations above all else.
Phone system music plays ads about the company’s strategic location “only a few feet from the border” and its once sleepy tourist towns. The company Web site sports U.S., Mexican and Canadian flags, and boasts of its Internet load tracking service and “continuous track of the cargo and equipment.”
Slick marketing, however, has been forced from the driver’s seat at gunpoint and thrown to the ground by grim reality.
Twenty percent of Rapid Transfer Xpress’ technology-protected fleet has been hijacked since the first of the year.
According to the Wall Street Journal, the carrier has had four of its 19 trucks hijacked this year – even after the company installed expensive GPS units to track the trucks from factory to border.
Mexico – with its history of drug routes that link South and Central America with drug demand in the U.S. – has seen muggings, hijackings and murders explode just as powerful interests are pushing for widespread cross-border trucking operations.
Their timing couldn’t be worse.
Mexico’s escalating drug war has begun affecting mainstream trucking like never before. The Mexico City Attorney General’s office has reported that criminal gangs are truckjacking more than 4,200 loads per year, according to Pinkerton Consulting & Investigations.
Besides small and medium-size trucking companies, major shippers like Delphi have encountered drug smugglers for the first time ever.
“Brazen drug gangs are also branching out into crimes such as hijacking trucks and stealing cargo, terrorizing employees and raising the cost of doing business throughout Mexico,” the Journal reported.
RTX didn’t respond to Land Line’s requests for comment.
meets wild west
While advocates for long-haul, cross-border trucking have attempted to label the issue as free market capitalism, few U.S. companies are willing to send trucks across the border.
And for good reason.
Armed groups linked to Mexico’s drug cartels murdered 1,500 people in 2006 and 2,700 in 2007, and the death toll rocketed to more than 6,000 in 2008.
Top American defense and intelligence experts warn that Mexico is currently a national security threat and could evolve into a nation controlled by drugs and crime.
In December, retired U.S. Army Gen. Barry McCaffrey traveled to Mexico and prepared an academic report on Mexico detailing his recommendations to the then-incoming Obama administration.
McCaffrey reported decapitated Mexican soldiers and police bodies being put on public display and called the violence in Mexico a threat to U.S. national security.
The situation has worsened because of Mexico’s lack of organization. Truckers know the country doesn’t drug test commercial drivers or keep safety records, but McCaffrey pointed out Mexico also has no national registry of police officers “nor is there a national registry of vehicle registrations or license plates.”
“Mexico is not confronting dangerous criminality; it is fighting for survival against narco-terrorism,” he wrote.
The U.S. Border Patrol has found nearly 400 bodies along the southern border in the past year.
In 2008, Juarez had a reported 17,000 car thefts and 1,650 carjackings. (See box below.)
The rising violence isn’t a surprise to Herb Schmidt.
Schmidt, president of Con-Way Truckload, has watched three successive presidential administrations struggle with developing a cross-border trucking program with Mexico.
Violence and threats toward trucks has only worsened during that time.
If the border opens to long-haul operations before the violence is curtailed, Schmidt says he won’t be surprised to read about an American driver with a spouse and family at home, falling victim to thieves and murderers working for Mexican drug cartels.
Each time cross-border trucking is brought up, Schmidt says, he hasn’t budged from his position of not sending his drivers across the border.
“I’m adamantly opposed to it,” said Schmidt.
Con-Way has drivers who regularly work at the company’s transfer station in El Paso and trucking facility in Laredo, TX, but who don’t want to leave the United States. A spike in Juarez murders fueled by the ongoing drug cartel battle has strengthened his resistance.
“We’ve watched as this has evolved, these problems have evolved,” Schmidt said.
Con-Way’s business contacts, terminal proximity to the border and knowledge of transnational shipping could make the carrier a natural fit for cross-border operations. Con-Way’s need to stay competitive keeps the issue on the radar, Schmidt said.
However, Schmidt has a laundry list of reasons why he opposes cross-border trucking.
Truckers from both sides of the border oppose long trips outside their counties. Allowing foreign trucks to run free through the U.S. is certain to lead to a “race to the bottom” of freight prices. Trucks from Mexico could easily avoid paying any share of federal diesel taxes by filling tanks south of the border, while U.S. truckers pay at the pump.
“We’re in a great position to be able to do it,” Schmidt said. “We’ve got the contacts – we would know what to do and we’ve got a huge presence in Mexico. But I’m opposed to it based on principle.”
Few carriers want to put their drivers in a position to be hurt.
U.S. carriers were given the chance to run long haul into Mexico as part of the Bush administration’s cross border trucking pilot project.
Only 10 U.S. carriers participated.
Violence may worsen
Ron Marks is a former Senior CIA agent and U.S. State Department program director for law enforcement issues in Russia and Eastern Europe. He has lent his expertise to NBC’s “Nightly News” and other news organizations.
Marks is an expert not only on Mexico, but also on trucking.
Marks’ father and grandfather ran a longtime Massachusetts trucking company for two generations in the early and mid-1900s.
Marks told Land Line his family dealt with major truck hijacking issues in the 1920s and 1930s when syndicated crime fought over several American regions, including the northeast to Maryland area.
“Truck hijackings were always a problem – particularly in that era,” Marks said.
“Now in Mexico you’re dealing with something similar to that time. These guys know there is money in this – and they can gain quick money by hijacking and moving a load. That threat looms large.”
Along with drugs, the business of the Mexican cartels are even more competitive than ever and better funded. Their bid for power has been met with an unprecedented commitment by Mexican President Felipe Calderon to stop them. The battle has spilled over, killing innocent victims in broad daylight and making Mexico a dangerous neighbor.
“In part, the drug syndicates have really dug in there faster than anybody anticipated,” Marks said. “You have a higher level of corruption there; these guys (cops) don’t get paid well. But cartels do pay them well.”
From October 2008 to June 2009, U.S. agents captured 608 fully assembled weapons on the border in the southwestern United States – a 50 percent increase from the 404 captured during fiscal year 2008. During the same time frame, the feds intercepted 9,900 firearms, firearm parts and munitions, more than three times the 3,250 seized during 2008.
“I think you’ve got a real headache here,” said Marks, a former senior CIA officer. “I think the situation isn’t going to get better anytime soon – and it may get worse on some occasions. The real question at this point is: How do you really sort the border out and not foul up relations with one of the largest trading partners we have?”
80,000 pound target
The U.S. government hasn’t issued warnings for commercial vehicles specifically. Instead, the only information comes in warnings to American tourists.
In February, the U.S. State Department asked American tourists to use extreme caution when traveling into Mexico, noting that major intersections and public areas had become common battlegrounds among cartels and soldiers in the drug war even in daylight.
“Criminal assaults occur on highways throughout Mexico. … When in heavy traffic or when stopped in traffic, leave enough room between vehicles to maneuver and escape, if necessary,” the State Department warned.
Drivers who are stuck on the road in Mexico may well be left high and dry.
The U.S. State Department says Mexico’s version of 911 can be reached at 060, “but this number is not always answered.”
Americans’ best bet – according to the federal government – is to rely on “good guys” with bilingual crews to help victims.
Those stranded on Mexico highways may call 01-55-5250-8221 to reach a fleet of AAA-like service trucks called the Green Angels. They provide service at no charge, though a Mexican federal Web site suggests you tip them.
Schmidt remembered the days when he’d walk over the border with co-workers and grab a bite to eat during sun-drenched days.
Even for Mexican businesses that cater to Americans and are literally only blocks away from the United States, Schmidt says, he wouldn’t go back in broad daylight.
“I used to feel perfectly comfortable going across the border to have lunch myself – didn’t bother me at all,” he says.
“But I wouldn’t today.”
And neither do Con-Way’s drivers.
“Our drivers don’t want to go over the border – even cross on foot anymore, never mind in a truck,” he told Land Line. “They used to cross and shop or go out to eat. But they won’t even do that anymore.”
Schmidt, an active OOIDA member, frequently talks to elected officials about the cross border trucking issue.
During each conversation, Schmidt asks them if they would load up their personal vehicle and take their family to Mexico City.
“I have yet to have one tell me yes,” Schmidt said. “Then why in the world would they believe for one minute it’s safe for commercial drivers to go? How then, is it acceptable and safe to have someone cross the border with a trailer full of goods? Not just a wallet in their pocket, and not just personal items in the cab of their truck, but a trailer with anywhere from $25,000 to a million dollars worth of cargo.
“Wouldn’t that be more of a target than a personal vehicle?” LL