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Breaks according to needs, not to law

Mexican truck drivers have to manage 1 800 km of loneliness when driving between Tijuana or Mexicali and the southern tip of the peninsula, Baja California. They calculate some 24 hours of driving time for the stretch – breaks not included – but sometimes they make it in one straight rush. Obviously, they don’t grumble about speed limits, writes RICHARD KIENBERGER.

Whenever photographers meet uniformed officers in countries far away, they switch to alert mode. Experience tells them that there is always something that – according to narrow-minded officials – shouldn’t be photographed, even if the reason why is weird.

Therefore this photographer wasn’t delighted to see two policemen heading straight towards the spot where he was taking the image of a hawker and asking himself how the on earth this guy might fit all the stuff on display into his old tiny pickup truck.

In this case, all officer José Moran Gonzalez and his colleague were looking for was a chance to get a lift from Ciudad Constitución to Ciudad Insurgentes – two neighbouring cities on Baja California.

There was space in the car for one of the officers, and it took just minutes to realise that, in this case, it was a lucky coincidence to get in touch with an official. Talking to Gonzalez delivered a rare insight into the dangerous daily life of a Mexican policeman.

He is part of the staff of a Policia Municipal. A member of the Federal Police, or even the Marina elite squads, wouldn’t join a foreigner in his car and then start a frank chat about the complicated situation in Mexico… The policeman had been on a 40-hour workshop in Ciudad Constitución.

“We were ordered to go by the ministry,” he said, and wasn’t clear if he liked what he had heard during the workshop, or whether he regarded it as an imposition. Anyway, he stopped talking about it after a few sentences and moved to the fight against the drug cartels, which has led to an undeclared civil war in Mexico.

He talked about the city of La Paz (a two-hour drive south) where he lives with his family when he is off duty. He said the killing of two or three people daily is the norm there. A European living in this capital of Baja California Sur told us later that, up to now, “luckily” the victims are gang members, who are killed in territorial fights.

“And it’s even worse further down south in Cabo San Lucas,” officer Gonzalez sighed. However, the government is not interested in publishing reports about the gang wars in order to avoid unease among the many tourists travelling in Baja California. The tourist industry is an important economic factor on the peninsula.

“We know about it,” he added. Having been an officer for almost 30 years, Gonzalez sounded sad when telling these stories, as many of his colleagues have been killed in the conflict.

Of course, we had to ask him if truck drivers commuting between the disputed areas in the south and the United States-Mexican border in the north are a big part of the problem – and whether they are used by the syndicates for their businesses.

“Yes, of course every now and then we seize trucks trafficking drugs, but many of the drug traffickers have switched to motorcycles,” he said. This was easy to understand – using a tuned or an off-road bike gives them a better chance to escape police or military forces than a heavy truck.

For foreigners, this war between the Mexican government and the drug cartels is somehow comparable with the system of casts in India: as long as one can disregard the many checkposts dotted around the whole country, the heavily armed military and police squads patrolling cities, as well as lonely country roads, one knows that it exists, but, in daily life, it’s hard to see the dominant fault lines.

Starting in La Paz and driving North on MEX 1, we saw the ambience we imagined a Mexican landscape should have: the main link on Baja California winds and cuts through a rough, untamed semi-desert in which cactuses expand their thorny arms high up in the blue sky. It’s no wonder visions of rattle snakes and scorpions come to mind, but the vultures and crows sailing in the permanent wind and watching anything moving are real.

Quite often they have an easy life as they just have to pick up the prey from trucks and cars. Windmills made of tin and water reservoirs on high stilts evoke common views of Western movies. Just cowboys (called vaqueros in Mexico) or donkey carriages are missing to complete the cliché.

On Baja California the population density is approximately nine people per square kilometre, compared to 230 people per square kilometre in Germany.

It was hard to find truck stops or gas stations on the long stretches between the major cities. Sometimes a ramshackle cabin of a campesino (peasant farmer) came into view; which reflected the sad face of everlasting misery and lives without the ghost of a chance. Many restaurants beside the road were deserted and also told stories of hardship in the outback.

A number of people living close to MEX 1 try to make a living as Llantero (someone who works in a tyre shop). Those offering tyre services have plenty to do, especially during the hot summer, but none of them have become rich through this business. Customers pay a few lousy pesos only for air, or assistance when changing wheels.

This, on the other hand, explains why many of the younger Mexicans prefer to work for the drug cartels. It’s easy to make money, even when working on the lowest level of the gang hierarchy. The cartels are extremely important players in the Mexican economy.

Driver Carlos stood on a dusty spot beside MEX 1, together with his mechanic Esteban. Their Freightliner had stopped working. Prayers in the chapel across the road probably wouldn’t have helped to make the truck run again. They were interested in the camera and were eager to know how many pictures could be stored on the memory card. Time passes by slowly when you have a truck breakdown…

Usually truck drivers tend to be in a hurry, but in this case they had plenty of time to chat. They had a big problem as they had done only a few kilometres on their way back home to Tijuana, the twin city of San Diego, which is to the north near the border.

“We started in La Paz,” they said. “It’s 1 800 km from there to Tijuana.” Usually they could make the distance in some
24 hours of pure driving time. Mexican drivers stop when they feel that it is time to stop.

Sometimes, if there is no need for a break, they do it in one go. From the point of road safety this is not recommended, but most of the Mexican truck drivers are paid by the kilometre. That’s the reason why they must gorge as many kilometres as possible.

To complete the tour within 24 hours requires a neglect of traffic rules, and, especially, speed limits … 80 km/h on one of these kilometre-long straights. Perhaps this is the speed travelled by truck drivers whose vehicles are 50 years old, or more – like Jorge with his DINA Load Star.

Jorge claimed the bonneted truck was built in 1965; he hauls fish daily from the docks to a cool house in Ciudad Insurgentes. Jorge was, however, not a typical truck driver – those let the needle touch the 100 km/h mark whenever it is made possible by topography or the ratio between cargo load and horsepower.

Drivers have to catch up the time they lose due to the many road works. Some 40 years ago, MEX 1 was still a rough gravel road. Nowadays it’s tarred, but most of the main road is quite narrow. If truck drivers want to overtake, or have to deal with oncoming traffic, they have to drive on the shoulder with the wheels on the right side.

The government is in the process of improving the MEX 1. The roadworks sometimes cover many kilometres, requiring traffic to detour on dusty makeshift side tracks. With a passenger car you may “fly” over some of these washboard bypasses, but this is impossible with a truck.

Most of the trucks are American makes or built by American manufacturers in Mexico. If a truck breaks down, due to the heat or the rough road surface, it may be to the benefit of Ramon Alcalez, owner of tow service Gruas del Valle in Ciudad Constitución.

In the late afternoon, Ramon sat in front of his yard, enjoying some rays of the setting sun. “There are not many accidents happening,” he told us. “Technical defects make up most of my business.” The towing professional wanted a photograph taken of himself with the mighty and well-maintained tow truck as a background.

His truck was a gem, especially when compared to the Ford used by a colleague a few miles down the road. This vehicle was also built in 1965 and, in addition to towing, has been used for some jobs on farms.

In 1968, when the Ford still was a young vehicle, many Mexicans enjoyed the Olympic Games hosted by their capital city and took it as an omen for a better future. Nowadays, it seems there is little hope for most of the Mexicans that a better future will be within reach.

FOCUS on Transport and Logistics is one of the oldest and most respected transport and logistics publications in southern Africa.

1 Comments

  1. Some drivers can take breaks according to their needs but it just takes 1 careless driver after a 24 hour continuous shift to case a major catastrophic accident in the highway.

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