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Tucson Weekly Driven To Destruction?

Under NAFTA, Unsafe Mega-Ton Mexican Trucks Are Now Rumbling Along Arizona Highways

By Tim Vanderpool

OCTOBER 20, 1997:  WE KNOW WHAT happens to people who stay in the middle of the road," said British parliamentarian Aneurin Bevan. "They get run over."

It's just too bad the Labour leader died before visiting Arizona's borderlands, where a mad scramble of international fence-sitting and domestic waffling have brought his deft political allusion to life.


The perpetrators are mega-ton Mexican trucks, orphaned by NAFTA nearly two years ago, and still skirting United States laws limiting them to commercial zones a few miles north of the Mexico line. Today they regularly cruise up I-19 and land in Tucson, roaring through a regulatory vacuum that federal and state agencies are at a profound loss to fill.

Keep in mind that these are the treacherous machines of folklore, legendary big rigs sometimes spotted with milk crates for seats and tail lights blinking to corrido rhythms, complete with wavering trailers hulking over bent axles and cracked rims, rifling through arid nights under the eternal guidance of Virgen de Guadalupe.

In other words, the very same trucks that have terrorized their native population for decades. And maybe they'd even be quaint, if they weren't downright dangerous.

On this side of the line, the U.S. Department of Transportation is mandated to enforce the commercial zone policy, but lacks the manpower. And the state Department of Public Safety has little jurisdiction to keep the diesels ensconced within their border habitat. As a result, the smoke-belching, often substandard haulers are engaging their American fellow travelers in an ongoing, death-defying, bi-national game of chicken.

"We see them in town with a lot of safety violations, problems with bad springs or brakes," says Spike Walker, an officer with the Tucson Police Department's Commercial Vehicle Enforcement Unit. "We probably stop 30 to 40 a month."

But like their DPS counterparts, local cops need an easy target, such as missing Arizona plates, Walker says. And therein lies the catch: Many of the drivers get a U.S. address, typically in Nogales, more or less qualifying them for dual Mexican and Arizona registration. Meanwhile, they still spend much of their time barreling along kidney-crunching Sonoran roads, facing Arizona Department of Transportation inspections only once a year.

This nefarious situation dates back to December 1995, when NAFTA was slated to grant them range throughout the U.S. border states, from Texas to California. Along with liberalized access, they would be subject to painstaking inspections at the border. But that's before election-year politics hitched a ride. Soon the rhetoric reached a fever pitch, stoked by labor unions bitter over the free trade agreement, and by a cadre of presidential candidates dancing to the protectionist cadence.

A righteous Pat Buchanan didn't miss a beat. "The first time there is an accident with one of these Mexican trucks," he said, "overloaded and with an unqualified driver, there literally will be hell to pay with the American people."

Teamsters President Ron Carey wasn't far behind. "NAFTA is giving corporations the license to kill on U.S. highways," he said.

On the eve of the new policy taking effect, labor activists rallied in Nogales, brandishing placards and angrily dogging U.S. DOT inspectors at the Mariposa Point-of-Entry. By day's end, the verdict had been passed: President Clinton was placing a temporary moratorium on trucks traveling beyond the border zone.

Labor was pleased, the protests were squelched and Clinton won by a hefty margin.

In the fall of 1997, his election year policy remains in effect, along with the outfall of massive expectations stunted midstroke. According to the U.S. Customs Service, 210,454 Mexican trucks rolled through Nogales' Mariposa crossing from October 1996 to August 1997, the heart of Mexico's produce export season. And many of those truckers obviously felt it was their right to deliver goods to points far beyond the border town.

At the same time, according to DPS officer Dane Sanders, his agency keeps only one permanent inspector at the port, augmented weekly by two or three rotating DPS inspectors. They compliment the two U.S. DOT inspectors also posted there.

Sanders estimates that .08 percent of all trucks coming through are inspected for mechanical violations.

Fortunately, the severity of problems have decreased since 1995, he says. "Mostly, we place them out of service for needing brake adjustments, for problems like tires separating, or for dual tires touching each other."

The DPS has also been sending teams into Mexico, educating drivers and Mexican officers about United States requirements, says Sgt. Raul Castillo, supervisor of the department's Commercial Vehicle Section.

However, at the border, many northbound drivers know exactly when the additional DPS inspectors are on hand--and when they're not. "Usually, they just wait us out," until the extra hands depart, Castillo says. "It's definitely a manpower problem."

Once on the road, the DPS can only pull over trucks displaying noticeable defects, or those lacking Arizona plates, he says. "But drivers can also receive a 96-hour permit to travel from point A to point B."

That means they can make it to Tucson with nothing more than tags emanating from the annual Arizona Department of Transportation inspection, regardless of blacktop beatings they may have endured in Mexico over ensuing months.

According Bill Rawson, ADOT's community relations director, "At the port of entry, what we're checking for with trucks crossing from Mexico is that drivers have evidence of a valid commercial driver's license, insurance and a certificate of an annual motor carrier safety inspection.

"We also make sure they're not over weight, and we collect whatever taxes are due," he says.

And while Arizona can't legally restrict the hauler's travel, "They're told at the border that they face possible sanctions if they exceed that commercial zone limit," he says. "But sanctions would be federal, not state. Secondly, the DPS has enforcement power statewide, so if they see a truck beyond that commercial zone and it had a problem, they would be able to stop it, inspect it and take care of whatever that problem was on the spot.

"But the fact is, (the trucks) are still limited by federal law to that commercial zone, even though state law does not make such a limitation on them."

All of which leads to Eric Ice, Arizona director for the U.S. DOT. The commercial zone limit "is federal law," he says. "The DPS can't enforce it. Only the federal government has the ability to enforce it."

Except that his agency has nobody cruising Arizona highways to make sure Mexican trucks are only where they should be. Any U.S. DOT oversight happens solely at the border through inspections.

"But so far, there have been no complaints about the Mexican trucks going beyond the commercial zone," he says.

As the old maxim goes, that and a quarter will sure get you a warm cup of coffee. Or at least one very shaky trip through the middle of the road.

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