Sacramento State student Alex Rodriguez is going to Mexico for Christmas. But, he says, "My mom doesn't want me to drive down there. My uncle was shot to death at 11 a.m. at a car wash in Choix, Sinaloa, in August. My mom said if you're in the business of drugs, that's your destiny." (RENEE C. BYER/MCCLATCHY-TRIBUNE)
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 immigrants are expected to return to Mexico this month from the U.S. to share the holidays with relatives they left behind.
Most are driving. And many, including Sacramento State freshman Alex Rodriguez, wonder whether 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 car wash 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 has claimed more than 28,000 lives in the last four years has spread to Mexico's highways, where bandits, many posing as police, have robbed cars with U.S. plates.
It also has seeped into the lives of immigrants to the U.S. and their families. Several say their relatives have received 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 and has created a network of government escorts and way stations to help guide and protect passengers traveling home for the holiday season.
"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 Gonzalez Gutierrez, 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.
For 24 years, Marco Rodriguez, president of Sacramento's Mexican Cultural Center, has been driving 2,000 miles to his hometown in San Luis Potosi 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% 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 Michoacan was ambushed in Sinaloa.
Several of Alex Rodriguez's classmates in Sacramento State's College Assistance Migrant Program for children of farmworkers also are worried.
"You can't enjoy a vacation. I don't even know if I'm going to make it to my little town in Michoacan," said Anabel Ruiz, 21.
"My parents won't let me go out anymore at night," said Anakarina Pimentel, 22. "Where my sister lives in Michoacan, 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."