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'Working on the Blade of the Knife'

Some U.S. NAFTA critics malign Mexican truckers. But a long ride with El Reverendo shows the savvy, stamina--and lusty sense of humor--it takes to survive road life south of the border.

March 18, 1996|JESSE KATZ | TIMES STAFF WRITER

It is 3 a.m. on a murky, impossibly narrow stretch of Mexican highway, desolate but for the blaze of big-rigs racing to and from the U.S. border. Bound for Texas with 48,000 pounds of pickled jalapenos, Vicente Ramos Sanchez, a.k.a. El Reverendo, knows that even an ill-timed blink can mean death.

Dodging stray burros and skirting sluggish jalopies, he navigates a route so pocked in places that it nearly jolts him to a kidney-rattling halt. By the time he arrives in Laredo, Texas, he will have passed hundreds, if not thousands, of tiny roadside crosses, each a signpost of a fatal wreck. Mile after mile, they serve as a reminder that Mexico's highways have an unforgiving way of weeding out the inept.

"We call this working on the blade of the knife," said El Reverendo, a 55-year-old grandfather who earned his moniker as a ministry student. "You learn quickly, or you die young."

Once restricted to operating south of the border, El Reverendo and his fellow traileros soon may be cruising to a freeway near you. Under a provision of the North American Free Trade Agreement, they were to have gained full access to U.S. border states Dec. 18--and, eventually, to the rest of the nation.

An eleventh-hour political offensive, assailing Mexican trucks as unsafe and ill-equipped, derailed the measure on the day it was to take effect. NAFTA still paves the way for them to someday rumble through this country. But it remains unclear when and under what circumstances that will occur, so thoroughly have los traileros been branded as pariahs of the road, or as Texas Atty. Gen. Dan Morales puts it, a "traveling calamity waiting to happen."

The reality of El Reverendo's world is something else altogether, a strange, nocturnal odyssey--often hazardous but also inspiring--through a remote swath of Mexico rarely traveled by outsiders. Soon after the furor erupted, his employer, Transportes Quintanilla, allowed a reporter to join him on a typical run from the Texas border to Mexico City and back, an 80-hour journey that spanned five days and more than 1,400 miles.

Sleep came in fitful spurts on a mattress tucked in the back of his cab. Meals, mostly pungent meats and steaming tortillas, were taken in homespun eateries under tin roofs and bare bulbs. Showers, when available, consisted of little more than cold splashes from a sink. Toilets were improvised on the desert floor.

His favorite scent, strawberry mist, clouded the cab, which he doused every day like a house plant. Instant coffee and riboflavin ampuls, washed down with gulps of antacid, helped him stay alert. His belly, too big to fit comfortably behind the wheel, spilled from unbuckled pants.

At almost every turn, the peril of Mexican trucking was evident, from the chaos of the capital city's traffic to the plunging chasms of the eastern Sierra Madre Mountains. From his cab, El Reverendo saw the aftermath of four grisly accidents, mangled trailers left in their wake. He passed over mazes of scorched skid marks and seas of shredded tires. On a rutted highway in Coahuila, he had to slam on his brakes to keep from rear-ending an overloaded flatbed wheezing along at half his speed.

"Ay, Mexico, you've got so much to offer--food, women, a zest for life; but your roads--they're a real son of a bitch," said El Reverendo, throwing his hands in the air.

For all the pitfalls that could have reinforced American fears about his trade, El Reverendo did not stumble. Driving mostly by night and visiting sweethearts by day, he proved to be an accomplished pilot, if a somewhat salty rogue. His truck was modern. His maneuvers were prudent. In the wee hours of the morning, when the flare of oncoming headlights fused into a blinding swirl, he clutched the wheel like a horseman, cooing encouragements to his steed.

Perhaps not all Mexican truckers are as conscientious as El Reverendo--"maybe 70% are good," he ventured, "the other 30% are jackasses." But they all take pride in negotiating a cross-country obstacle course that makes almost any U.S. freeway seem like a cruise-control paradise.

Riding with El Reverendo provides a window into that culture, a frightful, valiant, grueling, romantic slice of life on Mexico's roads.

The Border

The road begins, as it always ends, in Los Dos Laredos, the twin border cities that have come to symbolize the promise and pitfalls of U.S.-Mexico trade.

With an average of 4,000 trucks crossing from Nuevo Laredo into Laredo every day, this South Texas outpost is truly Mexico's gateway to the north--the busiest inland port in the United States.

Laredo, once a backwater, is now one of the nation's fastest-growing boom towns. But its bounty has come at a price: Streets snarled by Mexican trucks, hauling everything from breakfast cereal to sulfuric acid, idling for hours in a bumper-to-bumper caravan of clamor and fumes.

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