'Working on the Blade of the Knife'

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.

"That's just part of what it takes to move commerce," said Carlos Villarreal, the deputy city manager in Laredo, where Mexican traffic is welcomed within a 15-mile perimeter. "Sometimes, we have to roll the dice."

El Reverendo has been playing the game for 34 years, the last 11 with Transportes Quintanilla, a respected Nuevo Laredo truck line with 200 yellow big-rigs that crisscross Mexico.

Standing sentry over the company's headquarters is a glass-enclosed shrine, home to a 3-foot-tall Virgin of Guadalupe adorned with Christmas lights. Before stepping inside to receive their orders, drivers pause for divine guidance.

Except for El Reverendo, an evangelical Protestant. He arrives in a battered Ford sedan with one of his seven children, 24-year-old Carlos, a missionary on both sides of the border. After loading the cab with clean clothes and a Bible, they linger over a hug, a parting that father and son have been repeating most of their lives.

Trucking may be the family's bread and butter, but El Reverendo, mindful of the dangers, is not about to let any of his children follow in his footsteps.

"Not even God wants that," he said, his jowly, unshaven face lighting up with a smile.

The Road South

It is after 7 p.m. by the time El Reverendo pulls out of the yard, bound for Mexico City with a trailer full of Duracell battery parts. Since he began driving commercially in 1962, he has trekked from the Texas border to the Mexican interior at least twice a week, spending more than 8,000 days on this road.

On the first night, passing through the craggy peaks of Monterrey and Saltillo, he pointed out corkscrew turns and slippery grades long before he had to react. He slowed down at a huge gravel quarry where dense clouds of sand often sweep across the highway. Near a cluster of rural cantinas, he stopped altogether, wary of the besotted patrons who tend to pour out onto the road.

That familiarity extends to his frequent off-road encounters--at cafes, truck stops and pharmacies--which help him break up the monotony of the drive. Although El Reverendo doesn't drink or smoke, he is far from a saint, dishing out ribald puns and come-ons like a frat boy on the prowl.

Less than 15 miles outside of Nuevo Laredo, he stopped to see Miriam, the pretty clerk at a nameless makeshift mini-mart. He ordered a cup of Nescafe and bought two rolls of toilet paper. But his real purpose was to tweak her with a bit of lecherous blarney.

"Baby, why don't you come on into my cab and confess," said El Reverendo, wrapping a thick arm around her shoulder. "I'm a reverend. It's OK."

A few days later, attempting a similar ploy with a married friend at her rustic luncheonette, he found himself rebuffed over a plate of quesadillas. This time, he countered with a sermon about Sancho, the mythical Mexican lover who makes off with the wives of inattentive husbands.

"A marriage without Sancho," proclaimed El Reverendo, a husband of 25 years, "is like a house without a garden."

None of this banter culminated in any breach of fidelity, or even a reproach for his boorish demeanor. To the contrary, it only served to enhance his stature as an unrepentant trailero, a diesel-powered Don Juan whose visits help spice up an otherwise bleak roadside existence.

That image has spawned an entire genre of popular Mexican entertainment, including a serialized comic book ("Sensational Truckers"), a norteno band ("Truckers of the North"), a radio call-in show ("Kings of the Road") and a TV soap opera ("Two Women, One Road").

"El Reverendo's too much--just like all the rest of them," said Licha Aguilar, who has fed him at her Queretaro beanery for more than two decades. "But if he didn't stop here to visit me, I'd run out and track him down."

El Reverendo finally did stop for the night, about 2 a.m., joining a cluster of snoozing big-rigs on a dirt lot outside the Esau Pharmacy in San Rafael. For two hours, he swapped double-entendres with the two young shopkeepers as love songs played on a radio. He was the only one not sipping beer.

At 4 a.m., he excused himself, sprayed his cab with air freshener and curled up in a bed of artificial strawberries.

The Heartland

Daylight revealed a side of Mexico far removed from the border's bustle and bright lights.

With a head heavy with fatigue and a knotted spine, El Reverendo crawled back behind the wheel and began lumbering across a terrain of stark grandeur and lonely panoramas, its majesty punctuated by ramshackle hamlets of cinder block and tin.

Following Highway 57 down the eastern flank of Mexico, he cut through parched valleys alive with Joshua trees and climbed through mountains towering enough to turn a winter shower into snow. The forlorn villages dotting the route were less striking, stripped of vegetation and strewn with plastic grocery bags, which rolled across the desert like tumbleweeds.

What little commercial activity there was, in fact, seemed to exist only because of El Reverendo's trade, the lifeblood of these highway towns.

"Wherever a trailero passes, there's business," he said, rattling off the obscure pit stops that loom large on the trucker's map.

In Matahuala, the halfway point, he hired a ragtag bucket brigade to scrub his truck and paid $3 to a freelance mechanic to paint his hubcaps blue. Just south of El Huizache, he hooted at the prostitutes huddled around a campfire, the nature of their business revealed only by red towels dangling from a branch.

Whenever he reached an official checkpoint, he readied a $1.25 tip, a modest investment in goodwill compared to the prices exacted by genuinely corrupt inspectors. "For your coffee," he told an officer.

For lunch this second day, El Reverendo selected another Mexican phenomenon--las bases, funky roadhouses that fish for customers via the CB airwaves. Their hostesses, often single mothers, use the two-way radio to advertise daily specials, sometimes employing a little coquetry to lure a passing trucker.

Olimpia Orozco Moreno runs El Reverendo's favorite, Base Peluche, a drafty hovel with a hungry cat picking through the garbage. When he walked in, she showed her pleasure by hugging his belly, clearing the kitchen table and whipping up a feast of eggs, beans and tortillas for less than $1.

"When they're feeling lonely, or down, or far from home, we're always there for them--a friend they can talk to, someone to make them feel better," said Orozco, 26.

Experience has taught her the costs of getting too close to her customers: She and her three sisters, all of whom married traileros, are now all divorced.

Homeward Bound

Mexico City is a trucker's nightmare, a tangle of gridlocked streets and choking exhaust--"a mother of a mess," said El Reverendo, eager to keep his stay short.

Arriving at the Transportes Quintanilla yard about 11 p.m., he unhooked the Duracell trailer, then dozed for five hours in the back of his cab. By dawn, he was on his way to La Costena's huge Tulpetlac factory, where a forklift operator filled an empty trailer with a mountain of canned jalapenos.

Before beginning the journey home, El Reverendo whacked all 18 tires with a rubber mallet. He tugged the hoses that supply pressure to his brakes. Then he turned the key on his '95 Kenworth, a sleek, air-suspended, 430-horsepower leviathan, blasting the horn as he barged into traffic.

"Laredo, here I come," he bellowed. "To hell with everyone else!"

Less than two hours later, El Reverendo was staring at the worst accident of the journey. A twin-trailer, emblazoned with the Wonder Bread logo, had jackknifed in the southbound lanes, coming to a rest less than a foot from a cross commemorating the victim of a previous wreck. It was impossible to determine how badly this driver was hurt, but his truck lay sprawled on its side, wheels pointed in opposing directions.

"On a straight road like this, there's no excuse," El Reverendo said. "It could be only one of three things: He was speeding, he was tired or he was careless."

Free-trade critics, mostly labor unions and environmentalists, complain that NAFTA's open-door invitation would export such negligence north. Mexican trucks, they contend, are three times as old as U.S. trucks and up to twice as heavy. As many as 25% contain toxic chemicals. And unlike U.S. drivers, who must submit to drug tests and a limit of 10 hours a day behind the wheel, Mexican truckers are allowed to push themselves as long and as far as they can.

In a move tinged with election-year politics, the Clinton administration acquiesced, indefinitely yanking the welcome mat. Although two years of binational meetings had presumably resolved any safety concerns, even NAFTA supporters had grown wary. Morales, the Texas attorney general who has supported the agreement, warned: "Just one unfortunate accident between an overweight, unsafe Mexican truck and a Texas school bus . . . could escalate into an international tragedy."

Nobody understands those risks better than El Reverendo, who spent most of the trip with his gray hair tucked under an "American Spirit" baseball cap.

As he barreled north, he decried the swashbuckling techniques of his fellow traileros, their attempts at passing often turning a two-lane highway into a three-lane game of chicken. While climbing a slope in Nuevo Leon, he cursed a pickup so overloaded that it looked like it was ready to roll down in reverse.

"What butthead would put such a load on that poor truck?" he said. "I'd be worried about letting him in my country too."

If anybody is proof that Mexico's truckers have been unfairly demonized, however, it surely is El Reverendo, who seems more than capable of acquitting himself on U.S. roads. On the third night, stopping for coffee near San Luis Potosi, he joined several other traileros as they imagined how cushy that experience would be.

As they talked, one of them pulled a pack of pep pills from his pocket, offering the dietetic stimulants as casually as if they were sticks of gum. El Reverendo, whose face had grown ashen with fatigue, shook his head and scowled. The others shrugged. Back on the road, he drove until 5 a.m., using the crosses lining the way to explain his reaction.

"All the truckers, they say I'm a brown-noser because I don't have any vices; they all want to know what I'm going to die from," he said.

"Well, look at this guy on the side of the road, God bless him, but he's gone--he's not a macho man anymore," said El Reverendo. "To me, the real macho man is right here, alive, driving, at the wheel."

El Norte

For his dedication, El Reverendo is paid about 6 cents a mile--a U.S. trucker averages 28 cents. If it seems paltry, a trip like this still puts about $90 in his pocket, which can finance a fairly middle-class existence when multiplied by seven or eight stints a month.

It is a sacrifice that returns him home only two nights a week, usually Wednesdays and Saturdays--which he spends playing with his grandchildren, catching up on sleep and camping out in front of the VCR. As if he didn't get enough thrills on the road, he is a sucker for action films, indulging in a steady diet of Stallone, Seagal and Van Damme.

A native of the Rio Grande's muddy banks, he was orphaned as a teenager, finding succor in the freedom of the road before feeling the church's embrace. Trucking sparked a love affair with the colorful folkways of his own country, most of which he had seen only on black-and-white TV. Although he imagines the United States has much to offer--and would consider it an honor to drive there--El Reverendo has no illusions of seeking his future in the north.

"Your country is very pretty, but I'm Mexican," said El Reverendo, who is protected by an insurance plan courtesy of the government and his boss. "Here, I work honestly, decently, legally. Why would I go somewhere I'm not really wanted and don't belong?"

Far from a job, driving a truck for El Reverendo is more like an act of patriotism, his small contribution to that great work-in-progress called Mexico. He was on this road three decades ago, when an hour might pass without spotting another trailero. Now that he is chugging toward the border in a convoy of several thousand, he considers himself a modern-day equivalent of the Mayan pyramid-builders--"just one grain of sand among many, but performing its function with love and respect."

On the final day, when he stopped again at Base Peluche, it was not as a haggard working stiff but a conquering hero, a survivor. The locker-room humor, all the bawdy give and take, began to seem more appropriate. Peluche, and every other place like it, was there to assure El Reverendo that he is somebody of consequence; they are his cheering section, egging him on to the finish line.

As the journey went on, it became clear just how valuable that contact is to El Reverendo's psychic balance, how utterly alone he is without it. Day after day, perched on the prow of a multi-ton behemoth, he forges ahead with only his wits and his instincts to guide him.

"The secrets of the road are very deep," he said, turning somber. "Too many people let inertia guide them. You've got to mix your character--the emotional and the spiritual--with your work. If you treat this as just another damn job, you're not going to survive."

From a distance, across the dark desert, the lights of the border began to draw near. Like most long-haul traileros, El Reverendo won't actually take this load across. His truck is too valuable to be stuck in line for hours, clearing customs and immigration. Instead, his chiles will be carried into Laredo by a drayage firm, whose rattier equipment is what NAFTA critics usually see.

It is after 2 a.m. when El Reverendo finally hits Nuevo Laredo. Too late to go home, he beds down at the Transportes Quintanilla yard. In the morning, he will wake up and do it all over again.

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