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From US, a Holiday Road to Peril
email this pageprint this pageemail usStephen Magagnini - The Sacramento Bee
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December 05, 2010

The annual Mexican Christmas pilgrimage, traditionally a joyous journey culminating in pozole stew and Nativity re-enactments, is now fraught with fear and foreboding.

About a million Mexican immigrants, including thousands from Northern California, are expected to return to Mexico this month to share the holidays with relatives they left behind years ago.

Most are driving. And many, including Sacramento State freshman Alex Rodriguez, wonder if they'll make it to Christmas dinner without being robbed, shot or kidnapped.

"My mom doesn't want me to drive down there," said Rodriguez, 18, who was born in Mexico and raised in California. "My uncle was shot to death at 11 a.m. at a carwash in Choix, Sinaloa, in August. My mom said if you're in the business of drugs, that's your destiny."

But the menace reaches beyond the drug cartels. The violence that's claimed more than 28,000 lives in the last four years has spread to Mexico's highways, where bandits – many posing as state or federal police – have robbed cars with U.S. plates.

It's also seeped into the lives of local immigrants and their families. Some who planned to open businesses south of the border gave up when ordered to pay protection. Others have seen their real estate investments in Mexico plummet. Several say their relatives have gotten phone calls threatening to kidnap their American cousins for ransom.

And nearly everyone has heard stories of cars hijacked or stopped unless the drivers pay bribes.

The Mexican government recognizes the challenges of navigating roads through the drug wars and for the first time has created a network of government escorts and way stations to help guide and protect passengers traveling home for the holiday season.

Caravans of five or more vehicles heading into Mexico, particularly the violence-torn states of Sinaloa and Tamaulipas, can receive an escort if they register their routes with the Mexican government.

"Nearly everyone's somehow affected by the fight against drug trafficking and organized crime – they're trying to co-opt our institutions and eroding our freedoms by intimidation," said Carlos González Gutiérrez, Sacramento's Mexican consul general.

"We are urging people not to drive at night, to use federal highways as much as possible instead of local roads, and not to travel with cash; people can use credit cards on federal toll roads."

In some parts of Mexico, the drug-related violence now disrupts daily life. Monthly pension checks are delivered by armed guards in Sonora and Chihuahua. South of the Arizona and Texas borders, schools close early and some ranchers and farmers have abandoned their land. Many local police officers not on the take have quit and fled because it's not worth the risk to stay.

Entire towns in drug war zones have picked up and migrated to different states.

From Acapulco to Ciudad Juárez, innocent people are dying. Last October, 14 people – many of them children – were killed at a birthday party in southeast Juárez. Housewives, young mothers and students also have been slain there. Last month, the government captured the leader of the Aztecas – the most violent gang working for the cartels – who allegedly authorized 80 percent of all the killings in Juárez, including those at the birthday party.

"Juárez has the highest murder rate in the world right now, close to 2,000 this year, as rival Juárez and Sinaloa cartels fight for control," said Herbert Brown, the incoming special agent in charge of the Sacramento FBI office.

Brown, who battled organized crime in Juárez, said that since Mexican President Felipe Calderón went on the offensive against the cartels in 2006, Mexico has faced a "perfect storm" as six cartels fight for control and government troops battle both traffickers and corrupt cops.

Some choose to fly home

For 24 years, Marco Rodriguez, president of Sacramento's Mexican Cultural Center, has been driving 2,000 miles to his hometown in San Luis Potosí for Christmas.

"I love to drive," he said. But this year his family will fly because "you don't want to potentially endanger your family on the highways."

"When we fly we can only bring two pieces of luggage," he said. "But when people drive, you see cars loaded with TVs, dishwashers, washing machines.

"It's an incredible thrill and joy to go back and see all our relatives who have never been over here, along with family from North Carolina, Texas and Florida. We all migrate back to our hometown."

But fewer people are making the trek back to his town, Rodriguez said. "Last Christmas, only 50 percent went back and didn't come with as many presents."

The Mexican government acknowledges vehicles driving into the country laden with goods are often targeted. Last month, a convoy of three trucks from Merced carrying clothes, furniture and electronics to Michoacán was ambushed in Sinaloa.

When the caravan refused to stop, the bandits in two Jeep Cherokees opened fire, hitting a 2-year-old girl.

Several of Alex Rodriguez's classmates in Sacramento State's College Assistance Migrant Program for children of farmworkers also plan to drive down this month.

"You can't a enjoy a vacation. I don't even know if I'm going to make it to my little town in Michoacán," said Anabel Ruiz, 21.

"My parents won't let me go out anymore at night," added Anakarina Pimentel, 22. "Where my sister lives in Michoacán, there's fighting. They've found dead bodies, and people will call us and say, 'I know you live in the U.S.' Some people are actually paying protection money every month."

Local families feel fear

In the first half of the year, car travel to Mexico was down by 20 percent, but it's too soon to tell whether fewer people will go over Christmas, traditionally the busiest time, said González Gutiérrez.

Many of those killed in Mexico since December 2006 were drug dealers who were victims of wars between rival cartels, González Gutiérrez said. But 11 mayors also have been killed this year.

And about 10 percent of the victims are "law enforcement officials who have died in the line of duty," he said. "The weakest link in the chain is local police. The monumental task is to professionalize law enforcement agencies throughout the country, and mayors are in a very bad position because much of the time they have to rely on police forces they don't trust."

As a result, crimes often go unreported. Elvira Leon, who runs a Mexican restaurant near Franklin Boulevard, said her father-in-law, who owned a grocery store in Michoacán, was kidnapped April 1. "Nobody called the cops because they're the same ones we don't trust," she said.

Even longtime U.S. residents can get caught up in the drug wars. "I have property in Oaxaca and I need to pay property tax, but I'm afraid to go," said Maritza Martinez, an engineer in Folsom. "I can't pass for a local, and since I have property, I'm afraid they'll kidnap me."

But pride in the Mexican heritage still runs deep, and so do family ties. Some local immigrants return to their villages to celebrate their daughters' quinceañeras, or sweet-15 parties. Others have cardboard cutouts on their walls depicting homes they plan to build someday in Mexico for the family they left behind. Many of those relatives helped scrape together the money to send them north.

Although he's had two family members killed in recent years, and three others shot, Rodriguez, the Sacramento State student, will be driving down anyway.

"That's a sure thing," he said. "I have to visit my family. I'm not going to leave them behind and forget about them."


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