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MEXICO UNDER SIEGE

No holiday from fear

Worried about rampant drug violence, some U.S. residents with roots in Mexico say they'll forgo traditional visits to family there.

November 09, 2008|Anna Gorman | Gorman is a Times staff writer.

Every December for as long as Brenda Cardoso can remember, her family has spent Christmas together at her grandmother's house in Tijuana.

The celebration begins with nine days of posada parties and ends with an all-night gathering on Christmas Eve, with presents, pinatas, songs and homemade tamales.

But this year, her family is putting the tradition on hold.

Cardoso, 25, said she and her family are scared of the escalating drug wars and have decided to stay home in Downey for the holidays.

"It's not safe for us to gather over there," said Cardoso, who was born in Mexico but is now a U.S. citizen. "It's sad because it was a tradition that we grew up with. . . . Now, unfortunately, we can't do it because of how the situation is in Mexico."

As Mexican nationals and Mexican Americans begin to plan their holidays, many say they are choosing not to make the annual trek home to visit relatives. While some are dissuaded by the worsening economy, others are avoiding travel to Mexico because they fear the rampant kidnappings, killings and shootouts.

The U.S. State Department issued a travel alert late last month warning U.S. citizens to take precautions and to be aware of the "increasingly violent fight for control of narcotics trafficking routes," especially in the cities of Tijuana, Chihuahua and Ciudad Juarez.

Business at Transportes Intercalifornias, which runs about 15 buses a day from Los Angeles to the border towns of Tijuana and Mexicali, is already down from last year, said dispatcher Robert Bahine.

"They don't want to go home because of the problems in TJ, all the shootings and the killings," he said.

After Cardoso's uncle was a victim of carjacking and her cousin was mugged at gunpoint, several of her relatives moved from Tijuana to the United States. Cardoso and her family still own a house in the city, where they used to spend one weekend a month, but they haven't spent the night there in more than six months.

"It's never going to be the same," she said. "We can't go back, and we can't feel free."

Mexicana Airlines has seen about a 4% drop from last year in bookings from Mexicans traveling home to visit friends and relatives, said Jorge Goytortua, vice president of sales for U.S. and Canada. But Goytortua attributed the decline to the economy, saying that many regular customers work in affected industries.

Mexico's consul general in Los Angeles, Juan Gutierrez Gonzalez, also said he believes the economy is having a greater effect on travel than the drug wars.

"People are making up their mind to go or not to go because of the expense rather than the violence," he said.

But that is not the case with Yvonne Mariajimenez, a public interest attorney in Los Angeles. Mariajimenez said she has the money to travel home to see her relatives for Christmas but she is afraid to do so.

Mariajimenez, 50, said she has traveled to Mexico dozens of times in the last decade and usually spends her visits driving elderly relatives to neighboring towns to see one another. Her aunt told her that if she went this year, she shouldn't rent a car or drive around the country.

"The more I talked to her, I realized that it wasn't just my safety that she was concerned about, but it was hers as well," she said. "If they see a foreigner, the assumption is that the person has money."

Though Mariajimenez was born and raised in the U.S., she said Mexico is a part of her heritage and she is devastated by the increasing violence. She said she had hopes of retiring in Mexico, which she remembers as a relaxing and beautiful country, but worries now that may not be possible.

"The corruption of drug trafficking has really permeated these towns," she said. "I am not sure the innocence of that time will come back."

Juana Flores has put off traveling to Rosarito to see her mother. Though her mother insists that it's safe where she lives, Flores, 32, said she still worries about taking her three children to Mexico.

"As a parent, you don't feel comfortable," said Flores, who works at a linens store in Lynwood. "I just don't think it's safe, especially if they know you are coming from here."

And Martha Soriano, 54, president of the nonprofit that oversees the Casa del Mexicano in Boyle Heights, said she plans to bring her parents here for the holidays rather than visit them in Ciudad Juarez.

"You see the news, you read the newspaper, it's terrible to see what's happening," she said.

Despite the concerns, many are undeterred.

More than 1 million Mexicans returned home last winter, according to the Mexican government, which runs a program called Welcome Home Paisano aimed at easing their passage, teaching them their rights and reducing corruption by public officials. National coordinator Itzel Ortiz Zaragoza said that based on summer travel, she expects about the same number this winter.

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