Easter Sunday: In Mexico, drug war changes travel plans

Easter Sunday's drop in travel reflects growing caution. Sales are down by 60 percent for a bus company operating in the state of Tamaulipas, where mass graves were recently found.

Jorge Dan Lopez/Reuters
Cars form at toll booths to leave the city over Easter holidays in Mexico City, on April 21. Thousands of people leave the capital during Holy Week and some 80 cars are passing toll booths every minute, according to local media.

Semana Santa, or Easter week, is one of the busiest times to travel in Mexico. And despite the maddening crowds and traffic jams, my husband and I have often joyously added to the commotion. One Easter weekend we spent in Pátzcuaro, a gorgeous town of red tile-roofed homes in Michoacán. The next we spent with family in Veracruz.

This year both are off-limits.

Mexico's drug war, after more than four years and 35,000 related deaths, appears to be causing people to not only avoid the violent hot spots that make newscasts, but to also fear traveling on the very roadways.

Take the northern state of Tamaulipas, where authorities recently discovered at least 145 bodies in mass graves along a route that is popular among migrants. Or was.

The graves were uncovered in the same municipality where 72 migrants were kidnapped from buses and killed last August, allegedly after refusing to work for drug gangs, which have been blamed for the kidnappings and killings of scores of bus passengers in recent months, for reasons still being investigated.

A bus company operating in Tamaulipas told local newspapers that this Easter sales are down by 60 percent. In previous years the company had to add new bus routes to keep up with demand.

Violence affects travel

To be fair, northern Mexico is far more restive than the rest of the country. Had there been an affordable flight to Cancún from Mexico City, for example, I’d be lounging on the beach right now. While many Americans wonder how safe it is to travel here, I always say to come on down. Fears of getting hauled off a bus, kidnapped, and killed in central Mexico might border on paranoia.

But even here in the capital, relatively untouched by all the gruesome violence, people are making different choices than they were a few years ago, whether because of increased reports of robbing on buses near Mexico City or because the places where their families live have suddenly turned risky.

That is part of the reason we are not visiting Veracruz, a several-hour bus ride east. We have read about armed assailants jumping on buses along the route and demanding wallets and jewelry. And our relatives keep telling us how violence has skyrocketed, as the Gulf and Zeta gangs battle it out. One cousin works at a school where three parents are currently kidnapped. Another’s friend’s son was kidnapped and killed. Most of these people are middle class.

The problem is similar with Michoacán to the west. Another cousin driving through the state for work was stopped on a highway roadblock by men identifying themselves as La Familia looking for rivals. From our vantage, it seems there are plenty of other picturesque towns to visit besides Pátzcuaro.

So this year for Semana Santa I thought about Acapulco. Yes, drug violence there makes news, too, but it hardly touches tourists.

Then a friend shared a recent story: Her friends were on their way to spend a weekend on the beach, in their own car, when they were stopped by armed men, threatened, and robbed. She has given up weekend trips there, and so have my husband and I.

Hostage in their own city

On a reporting trip to Colombia last May, I traveled outside Bogotá to a little rural community that city residents could not visit when the FARC guerrillas controlled the area. Residents said they felt like hostages in their own city.

Is the same thing going to happen in Mexico?

In some places it already has.

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