For Mexican immigrants, the holiday road to peril

Sacramento BeeDecember 5, 2010 

SACRAMENTO, Calif. -- 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.

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