Mexicans Headed Home Forming Convoys To Stave off Attacks

Sonora State Police monitor traffic on Highway 15 as Mexicans hit the road south headed home for the holidays.
Michel Marizco
December 22, 2010

NOGALES, SONORA, MEXICO – Morning is growing late and traffic is building at the customs checkpoint along this Mexican highway. The parking lot is filling with travelers going deep into Mexico for Christmas. Maria Peyregaud is one of them.

"It's difficult now; it's different than other years because we see the news, that there's violence, assaults and all that, and we get a little scared. Even though we're Mexican, get a little scared. And that's sad."

Peyregaud and her husband aren’t going alone. Their eldest son Saul, insisted on following in a separate truck.

They'll travel by convoy, he says. It’s safer, more relaxed. The family wants to hit southern Sonora before dark and stop for the night along Highway 15.  This mass migration south is typical for this time of year. The Peyregaud’s join a flood of pickup trucks in reds and blues, or shining white. Truck beds are stuffed with cardboard boxes and bicycles are wrapped under blue tarps. Nearly every car bears a license plate from the U.S., Utah. California. Washington. Maine. Maria Peyregaud pulls her jacket tight against the cold. She's worried, she says. Mexico's changed. She left three years ago.

Photo by Michel Marizco
A family from Utah headed home to Sinaloa chose to travel by convoy this year to stay safe on the highways.

Even the Mexican government thinks Maria has reason to be scared. So many people have died violently in Mexico’s drug wars in the past three years, and the Paisano Program has become a way to escort Mexican citizens safely to their hometowns. Alejandro Orbezo is the program's spokesman in L.A.

"Places like the state of Sinaloa and the state of Tamaulipas do have a violence problem that has obviously affected civilians already and we're taking measures to combat and to solve those problems as a government," Orbezo said.

So for the next two weeks, Mexico is warning its paisanos to form convoys, stick with police escorts and above all..., don't travel at night. Last month, gunmen attacked a family headed south near Sinaloa. A hail of bullets injured a little girl. Three days later, in a separate case, two men were arrested for putting up a fake police checkpoint in the middle of the highway.

"Dicen que esta diferente ahora, no sé," says an old man climbing out of his truck.

Guadalupe Bravo says traveling this year is different.  He rolled in from California and he’s on his way to Michoacán. Salvador Galván's halfway home to Puerto Vallarta from Las Vegas. He's made the trip since 1991.

Salvadór Galván says he’s never seen it so bad with so many assaults and robberies. And those are the crimes the returning paisanos hear about. Other tales haven’t yet trickled north. Last week … another attack. A 64-year-old Mexican man and his wife headed to California. Ten armed men stopped the couple on the highway, clubbed them with their AK-47s and stole their truck. It happened fifty feet away from a federal police station along Highway 15.