Brazil’s Highway of Death

November 2, 2012

By Nacho Doce

As Marcondes walked to his truck, his wife and mother said goodbye with the words, “Be careful and may God be with you.” I knew why they talked that way; the highway that he was going to take from Rondonopolis to Sorriso in the fertile state of Mato Grosso is nicknamed the “Highway of Death.”


Marcondes and his father, also a truck driver, know it very well. It’s the highway famous for frequent accidents, where drivers pay little attention to the law and the narrow single lanes mean that trucks nearly touch as they pass each other in opposite directions.

This road that bisects unending plantations of cereal grain is full of potholes caused by thousands of fully loaded trucks a day, each weighing nearly 70 tons.

It was a Brazilian movie that sparked my interest in the lives of truck drivers here, and I wanted to see if they were really as portrayed. Shortly after seeing it, a Reuters journalist coincidentally proposed a cross country trip by truck to report on the cost of transporting Brazil’s riches – soybeans and corn – from the grain belt to the biggest seaport, Santos, on the Atlantic coast.

It was the latest of my dream trips – 5,000 kilometers and 10 days spent inside a truck, waiting as they loaded and unloaded grain cargo, sleeping in the top bunk inside the cabin, showering and eating in the same places as the truckers, and using the occasional stops to photograph different aspects of the journey.

I arose every day at 5:30 to photograph the trucks starting out on another day, and then took my own seat next to Marcondes or one of the other two truckers who gave me rides when I parted ways with Marcondes.

One day on the road to Sorriso I asked Marcondes to stop near a wooden cross placed on the roadside for an accident victim. As I hiked back to the cross I noticed two dogs approaching me, and looked through a long lens to see that one of them seemed to be a Rottweiler. I didn’t know where they came from or what they were trained to do, but I panicked. Since the truck was too far to run to, I stood in the middle of the road and flagged down a van, jumped in the back without even saying hello to the driver, and asked him to take me to the truck down the highway.

One of the reasons for our interest in trucking was to see the results of the government’s new rule mandating rest periods for drivers. Their goal is to limit the number of hours that truckers drive without rest, and reduce accidents. At our first rest stop with Marcondes, who heeded this new rule, I photographed another driver sleeping in a hammock that he tied to his truck. I took some pictures and he asked me what I was doing. When I explained, he said, “Tell President Dilma Rousseff that truck tires are not square. I don’t think she’s ever been on these roads.”

All I could think of was the narrow, potholed highway with thousands of trucks full of grain rolling along them.

One of the longest stops was at a cargo terminal where grain was transferred from trucks to train wagons. It was a 12-hour wait for each truck to unload, so during that time I was able to meet and talk to many people. They were open, talkative, and willing to be photographed, even in the hot wind that surrounded us in clouds of dirt.

There I met Chiquinho, a 66-year-old trucker who was dressed more like a gentleman on his way to a fine restaurant, but was cooking his meal in a makeshift kitchen under his truck. I commented on his smart dress, and he said, “Son, I’ve been inside that truck too long,” and he invited me to eat right there with him.

There were drivers traveling with their families, drinking coffee next to their vehicles as they waited. One group of truckers who hoped I would show the government what their lives are really like, asked me if I knew the saying that’s common in Mato Grosso. When I said I didn’t, one of them told me: “Mato Grosso satisfies Brazil’s hunger, and provides for the world.”

It sounded like the perfect way to explain Brazil’s agricultural power, especially in a year when Brazilian production helped fill a gap left by a record drought in the United States. I told them that with that reality, the truckers themselves have the power to make the changes they want, and that the only thing I could do was to show how difficult their work is.

One of them said, “You know Nacho, if we truckers could unite behind our proposals, the government would come to us on their knees to ask us to work.”

From the cargo terminal I caught a ride with a trucker nicknamed Cazador, to look for Marcondes who had continued on as I stayed behind to photograph the terminal. After catching up with Marcondes, we headed toward the port of Santos. We stopped at a tire repair shop, a tiny hut along the road, where I met and photographed Uilton, 27, in what was a surrealistic image. Uilton earns about $1,000 a month repairing tires, a decent wage for around there. He said he repairs lots of tires during very long days.

During a fuel stop later that day I met Paulo dos Santos with his wife and kids, who had been waiting three days for a new axle to arrive.

The next night we reached the mountains above the port of Santos, with him at the limit of how many hours he should drive under the new rule. I was tired from riding, and I could just imagine how he felt driving. The only truck stop we could find with a parking lot had a big sign outside reading, “Full.” I looked at Marcondes and he said, “It’s impossible to stop along the side of the road. Let’s continue to Santos. The new rules don’t work here.”

There was no place to rest and there was a real danger of being assaulted or hijacked on the roadside. We reached Santos, where the mess of trucks in the parking area was incredible. Hundreds of trucks with a full day wait time to unload.

We were close to the end of the trip, and I showered in the truckers’ area. The bathroom and the area were the worst, with rats running wild everywhere. Marcondes was scheduled to unload at 8am the next morning, 24 hours after arriving. A lot of that time was spent doing paperwork.

We went for a stroll with Marcondes around the port area full of trucks waiting to unload. There I spotted graffiti of Christ the Redeemer, Rio’s famous statue and a tourist icon of Brazil for the world. I waited for a truck to pass Christ’s open arms, and with slow shutter speed managed to take the photo that seems to me the ideal closing image for this story.

This trip had been a wonderful experience in every way. After saying goodbye and thanking Marcondes I had to hitch a ride in another truck towards Sao Paulo. On the last leg of my trip to reach the airport for a flight home, I purposely climbed onto one of the motorcycles that serve as transportation, instead of getting into a regular taxi. I was hoping to get a little dirty. I actually wanted to arrive home in the same dusty condition as when I reached destination with Marcondes the day before.

My adventure was complete.

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