EL PASO, Texas (Border Report) — When he travels to Mexico for the holidays, Lorenzo Escamilla practices the saying: “There’s safety in numbers.”

The Dallas resident on Monday was part of a vehicle caravan that drove into Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, with donations for the poor. “We’ve traveled together for four years to be safe. Not two weeks ago three guys I know got robbed near the highway to Monterrey. One car stopped in front of them, one got behind them, and six men got out and took their cell phones and $700 in cash,” said Escamilla, a painting contractor.

Highway robbery in Mexico tends to spike around the Christmas and Easter holidays, when tens of thousands of U.S. residents venture south to visit family members, often bearing gifts that make them more of a target, public safety analysts say. And with the drug cartels now targeting commercial trucks and their cargo as well, it’s important to exercise extreme caution on Mexican highways.

“As we get closer to the holidays, the criminals want to score extra cash so they can buy stuff for their families. They will even steal (gifts) for the kids in their own family,” said Scott Stewart, vice president of tactical analysis for Stratford Global Intelligence, an Austin, Texas-based private security group.

Several high-profile instances of highway robbery have been recorded this year, according to Stewart. In April, a group of armed criminals robbed hundreds of motorists near a tunnel on the Mexico City-Acapulco highway, taking advantage of the lack of cell phone signal. In July, an American couple was killed while trying to run through an illegal checkpoint set up by the rogue Auto Defensas group in Guerrero state.

Closer to the U.S. border, some Americans have run into trouble with the police for driving with small appliances in tow. “I’ve heard quite a bit on that route (Nuevo Laredo-Monterrey) of people getting stopped and asked for very big bribes for things they bought in the United States. That became a real issue for them,” Stewart said.

That’s something that travelers like Escamilla say they run into year after year. On Monday, he was having trouble getting the goods to be donated past the Mexican customs checkpoint. “We set things up with the consulate in Dallas. Now customs is telling us that whatever deal we made over there is no good over here,” he said, vowing not to turn back until getting his mission accomplished.

The Mexican government runs a seasonal program called “Paisano” to assist travelers who run into trouble on Mexican territory. The toll-free numbers are 1 (877) 210-9469 if calling from the United States or 01-800-440-3690 if dialing from Mexico

More trucks, more cargo … more criminals roaming highways

According to a Dec. 13 article by Mexico News Daily, more than 1,500 robberies have been recorded this year on Mexican highways. The thefts have cost Mexican manufacturers more than $68 million and have occurred primarily along four roads: Progreso-Monterrey; Veracruz-Puebla; Celaya-Leon and Guanajuato-Irapuato. The article quoted a Nuevo Leon business leader as saying that half of the manufacturers in the state have had at least one cargo stolen, and some have lost the truck as well.

Commercial trucks are targeted for their cargo, but they’re not the only vehicles that highway robbers crave, Stewart said.

“Four-wheel drive pickups, the large (Chevrolet) Suburbans tend to be very popular with the cartels as far as stealing, but cretainly anything that’s flashy could attract attention,” he said.

So if you must drive in Mexico, the advice is to stick to toll-roads with a strong police presence, avoid driving at night (that’s when most robberies occur) and not travel alone. However, even toll-roads may not be safe in areas of Mexico with a strong drug cartel influence, where armed bandits can set up illegal roadblocks, Stewart said.

“In most cases, especially those involving Americans who are not locals and not specifically targeted, the criminals basically just want your stuff,” he said. “So, if you’re confronted by armed criminals or come up to an illegal roadblock, it’s always advisable to surrender your stuff … your wallet, your car, none of that is worth your life.”

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