MEXICO CITY – Mexico's government is telling migrants driving home for the holidays from the United States that they should form convoys for their own safety while traveling through Mexico, and an official said Monday that police will accompany convoys on the most dangerous stretches of highway.
A seemingly intractable wave of drug cartel violence has made some border highways, especially in the states of Tamaulipas, Sonora and Sinaloa, so dangerous that the U.S. State Department urges travelers to avoid driving on some of the roads.
"When there are hot spots, we can request that a patrol escort the convoy," said Itzel Ortiz, the director of the Paisano Program, which is in charge of welcoming returning migrants and ensuring their trips home are safe.
Demands for bribes by police and officials at Mexican customs checkpoints used to be the worst problems for returning migrants, who often bring cash, new vehicles and appliances with them.
But that seems almost innocuous compared to the challenges posed by drug cartel gunmen, who frequently set up roadblocks on northern highways to steal vehicles and cash, kidnap or kill travelers.
Ortiz noted that those returning home have already reported "extortion attempts by members of drug cartels" and she confirmed that a family of returning migrants had been attacked on a highway in Sinaloa last week.
She did not give details, but local media reported that gunmen followed the family's vehicle and sprayed it with bullets, wounding a girl. Sinaloa prosecutors were not immediately available to confirm those reports.
Ortiz said the idea for the convoys began last year, when relatives of migrants returning from Las Vegas, Nevada, to the central state of Guanajuato approached the program to ask if a caravan could be organized.
"This year we are recommending it more because of some families' concerns about safety," she said.
Ortiz said the program often works with migrant clubs in U.S. cities. Such clubs are often organized by migrants from a given region or state of Mexico to keep community ties alive.
If a group is returning, they can give the Paisano Program a copy of their intended route, and program offices in each state along the way will check in with the migrants to see if they have made it safely to that day's destination.
In a statement, the Interior Department said the Mexican army would assist in the program to help migrants return safely from the United States.
"The main recommendation for travelers is that drive during the day and in groups, and with that aim in mind they should contact Paisano Program offices to organize caravans, so that they can be escorted or monitored," according to the statement.
While drug violence has claimed over 28,000 lives since President Felipe Calderon launched an offensive against the cartels in late 2006, migrants are also often targeted by common criminals for robberies or extortion.
An estimated 12 million Mexicans live in the United States, and the money they send home is Mexico's second-largest source of foreign income after oil exports.
The U.S. State Department has urged U.S. citizens to avoid traveling on the highway between the border cities of Nuevo Laredo and Reynosa, south of the Texas border, due to drug gang violence. The department also noted that "criminals have followed and harassed U.S. citizens traveling in their vehicles in border areas including Nuevo Laredo, Matamoros, and Tijuana."
The situation has become so bad that the State Department has prohibited its employees from traveling by vehicle across the U.S.-Mexico border.