NUEVO LAREDO, Mexico — Hundreds of thousands of Mexicans and Central Americans have been clogging crossings at the US-Mexico border, braving bandits and corrupt authorities in a perilous migration south to be home for Christmas.
This year, travelers are taking greater precautions to avoid being robbed or kidnapped as they head through areas where violent drug gangs have been active, and migrants have been massacred.
“The truth is, I’m scared, even though we expect to reach (central Mexico) with no problems,” said Erasmo Gonzalez, a 29 year-old farm worker returning for the first time in a year from his home in the US state of Ohio.
A caravan of 74 vehicles with some 300 migrants aboard made it through the busy border crossing at Nuevo Laredo on Monday, heading to central Mexico.
Alonso Laverde, a Mexican heading to the state of Queretaro with his wife and two children for the holidays, decided to join the caravan for protection.
“We’ve worked hard and saved up, always with hopes that we can spend these days with the family,” Laverde told AFP.
“We have gifts for the nephews and nieces, clothing, and other things for grandmother and the other relatives who stayed behind,” he said as he adjusted a giant TV set on the roof of late-model Ford SUV with Texas license plates.
“It’s a surprise,” he said, pointing to the TV set.
The 970 kilometer (600 mile) route to Laverde’s home heads through several northern Mexican states where drug violence is endemic.
According to the Mexican government, about three million people a year cross the US-Mexico border in the days before the holidays, making their way south in 800,000 vehicles.
In Mexico and Central America, the holidays include Christmas on December 25, New Years eve on December 31, and Epiphany on January 6.
Mexico’s federal police have deployed 12,000 officers, backed by eight helicopters, to the border between December 16 and January 8 to protect the travelers.
“The main advice for everyone is to travel during the day,” said Rafael Lomeli, the senior public security official in the northern state of Tamaulipas.
A study by the Mexico’s chamber of deputies said Mexicans living in the United States bring home some $3 billion in gifts and cash during the holidays.
The study also calculated that $1.2 million are paid each year in bribes to police officers and customs agents, highlighting another obstacle facing holiday travelers.
At Nuevo Laredo’s busy bus station, a group of Central Americans coming from the United States try to buy tickets to travel to the southern border with Guatemala.
“They say there are no more tickets,” cried Julio Rios, who was going home for the first time in three years with his savings from scrubbing toilets and cleaning the pool at a Texas hotel.
Despite the danger, he prefers to travel by land: the cost is $300, he said, half the price of the $600 air fare.