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Bootcamp-style training teaches Mexican drivers how to talk, act, as they cross into the U.S.

Monterrey, Mexico-based Olympic Transport is one of 41 carriers participating in the cross-border trucking program. ( Photo: Olympic Transport )

Fernando Paez runs a trucking company in Monterrey, Mexico with 140 trucks, 300 monthly border crossings and a bootcamp where drivers get a taste of the tough questions they’ll face when coming into the United States.

“We conduct random tests on the yard,” explained Paez, owner and CEO of Olympic Transport, during a recent press event in Puerto Vallarta. “We simulate we are police officers. We start attacking the driver, asking him questions about the road. We want him to feel that pressure so that when he goes to the real inspection, he knows what it feels like.”

Olympic Transport is one of about 41 Mexican carriers that are certified to haul cross-border loads beyond the designated commercial border zone. The so-called cross-border trucking program was created in 1994 as part of the original NAFTA agreement.

But as FreightWaves reported last month, a paragraph inserted into the reauthorized trade pact — known as the United States-Mexico-Canada agreement (USMCA) — could disrupt those cross-border trips. The new language suggests the U.S. could cap the number of Mexican carriers who can operate in the U.S. It will also allow federal authorities to re-evaluate carriers who already are certified to haul freight across the border.

These potential changes have companies like Olympic Transport worried. “It would be important for us to clarify the new trade agreement, so we can clarify requirements for companies that would like to apply and participate in the cross-border business,” Paez said.

The threat of restrictions has Paez doubling down on the training program, which teaches drivers how to stay cool under pressure from U.S. inspectors.

“Some times police officers can be intimidating because they are taller, well-groomed, well- dressed — they might be very strict, very rigid,” he said. “So if the operator is not well prepared, he is going to feel intimidated.” 

On-site instruction and drills include English language classes and an overview of signs and signals drivers will encounter in the U.S.

“The way they talk to the police officer is very important,” Paez said.  ‘Yes sir: I speak English.’  Because if you don’t answer, if you don’t look into their eyes, you lose.” 

The USMCA, which still must be approved by Congress, retains the ban on Mexican carriers hauling freight between two destinations in the United States. Truckers cannot haul loads that begin and end in the U.S.

Olympic Transport is authorized to move loads from the U.S. to Canada, and that market may become more important, Paez said. “If the U.S. does not want to trade with us, we need to see more about Canada.”

The cross-border program has a long, politicized history in the U.S. and continues to be opposed by such labor and trade organizations as the Teamsters and the Owner-Operators Independent Drivers Association (OOIDA).

These groups appear emboldened by the new language in the reauthorized trade deal.

“We believe the provision will help end the current program that allows Mexican carriers and drivers who are not held to the same, rigorous U.S. safety, security, or environmental regulations to operate on American roadways,” Norita Taylor, an OOIDA spokesperson, said in an email.  “We will continue working with the Administration and Congress to ensure that this language remains in any ultimately approved agreement.”

An expanding population and driver shortages in both countries make cross-border hauls more important than ever, Paez said. “We are growing. We are going to keep selling and buying goods for society. We need to look forward.” 

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Linda Baker, Staff Writer

Linda Baker is a FreightWaves staff reporter based in Portland, Oregon. Her beat includes early-stage VC, freight-tech, mobility and West Coast emissions regulations.