Mexico warns holiday travelers to visit in convoys

MEXICO CITY — It is an annual ritual, a pilgrimage that Mexicans living in the United States make to visit hometowns and families for the holidays.

But this year, the terrifying drug-war violence sweeping parts of the country is taking its toll.

The Mexican government is warning travelers who are driving home for the holiday season to move in convoys and only during daylight hours while on Mexican roads.

These convoys can be "escorted or monitored" if travelers check in with federal agents upon crossing the border south, the government said. The Mexican army is also offering protection.

The recommendation signals an acknowledgment that hold-ups and violence on Mexico's roads attributed to narco-trafficking gangs could affect the upcoming holiday travel crush.

"When our own government says it's not safe to travel in our own country, it really makes you feel sad," Luis Garcia, who presides over one of the numerous clubs that Mexicans belong to in the Los Angeles area, said in a telephone interview from Lynwood, Calif.

Garcia said many of the nearly 2,300 members of his Federacion Veracruzana, an association of people originally from the coastal state of Veracruz, have decided to cancel their trips this year. The topic has been a top concern among Mexican ex-pat clubs, and "people are really worried," he said.

Too often, Garcia said, motorists stumble upon roadblocks manned by people disguised as police who demand money or steal possessions. And waiting to form convoys means time-consuming delays.

Mexicans living in the U.S. —legally and illegally — often return to their hometowns in Mexico for extended breaks from late November through early January. Cash remittances from the estimated 12 million Mexican-born adults living in the United States are Mexico's second-largest source of foreign income after oil exports.

The Interior Ministry made its recommendations to visitors in an announcement this week timed to coincide with the launch of its Programa Paisano, or "Compatriot Program." The multi-agency effort is designed to ease Mexicans back into their home-regions after returning from the United States by reminding travelers of rules and services.

"Compatriots can call free of charge the number 060, from any phone inside Mexican territory, to ask for information, report crimes, or seek help," the ministry said in its statement.

Mexican state governments have predicted travel home this holiday season by "paisanos" may drop by as much as 50 percent.