The annual Mexican Christmas pilgrimage, traditionally a joyous journey culminating in pozole stew and Nativity re-enactments, is now fraught with fear and foreboding.
About a million Mexican immigrants are expected to return from the United States to Mexico this month to share the holidays with relatives they left behind years ago.
Most are driving. And many, including Sacramento State freshman Alex Rodriguez, wonder if they'll make it to Christmas dinner without being robbed, shot or kidnapped.
"My mom doesn't want me to drive down there," said Rodriguez, 18, who was born in Mexico and raised in California. "My uncle was shot to death at 11 a.m. at a carwash in Choix, Sinaloa, in August."
The violence that's claimed more than 28,000 lives since Mexican President Felipe Calderón went on the offensive against the drug cartels in 2006 has spread to Mexico's highways, where bandits -- many posing as state or federal police -- have robbed cars with U.S. plates.
It's also seeped into the lives of immigrants and their families. Some who planned to open businesses south of the border gave up when ordered to pay protection. Others have seen their real estate investments in Mexico plummet. Several say their relatives have gotten phone calls threatening to kidnap their American cousins for ransom.
Nearly everyone has heard stories of cars hijacked or stopped unless the drivers pay bribes.
The Mexican government recognizes the challenges of navigating roads through the drug wars and for the first time has created a network of government escorts and way stations to help guide and protect passengers traveling home for the holiday season.
Caravans of five or more vehicles heading into Mexico, particularly the violence-torn states of Sinaloa and Tamaulipas, can receive an escort if they register their routes with the Mexican government.
"We are urging people not to drive at night, to use federal highways as much as possible instead of local roads, and not to travel with cash. People can use credit cards on federal toll roads," said Carlos González Gutiérrez, Mexican consul general in Sacramento.
In some parts of Mexico, the drug-related violence now disrupts daily life. Monthly pension checks are delivered by armed guards in Sonora and Chihuahua. South of the Arizona and Texas borders, schools close early and some ranchers and farmers have abandoned their land. Many local police officers not on the take have quit and fled.
Entire towns in drug war zones have picked up and migrated to different states.
For 24 years, Marco Rodriguez, president of Sacramento's Mexican Cultural Center, has driven 2,000 miles to his hometown in San Luis Potosí for Christmas.
"I love to drive," he said. But this year his family will fly because "you don't want to potentially endanger your family on the highways."
"When we fly we can only bring two pieces of luggage," he said. "But when people drive, you see cars loaded with TVs, dishwashers, washing machines.
The Mexican government acknowledges vehicles driving into the country laden with goods are often targeted. Last month, a convoy of three trucks from Merced carrying clothes, furniture and electronics to Michoacán was ambushed in Sinaloa. When the caravan refused to stop, the bandits in two Jeep Cherokees opened fire, hitting a 2-year-old girl.
In the first half of the year, car travel to Mexico was down by 20 percent, but it's too soon to tell whether fewer people will go over Christmas, traditionally the busiest time, said González Gutiérrez.
Even longtime U.S. residents can get caught up in the drug wars. "I have property in Oaxaca and I need to pay property tax, but I'm afraid to go," said Maritza Martinez, an engineer in Folsom, Calif. "I can't pass for a local, and since I have property, I'm afraid they'll kidnap me."
But pride in the Mexican heritage still runs deep, and so do family ties. Some local immigrants return to their villages to celebrate their daughters' quinceañeras, or sweet-15 parties. Others have cardboard cutouts on their walls depicting homes they plan to build someday in Mexico for the family they left behind. Many of those relatives helped scrape together the money to send them north.
Rodriguez, the Sacramento State student, said that although two family members have been killed and three others shot, he'll drive down anyway.
"That's a sure thing," he said. "I have to visit my family. I'm not going to leave them behind and forget about them."
Travelers driving in Mexico can plan routes by accessing the program "Trace your route" at www.paisano.gob.mx and www.sct.gob.mx.