EL PASO, Texas (Border Report) – It’s an end-of-the-year tradition going back decades: Thousands of Mexican immigrants working in the United States going home for the holidays bearing gifts for their loved ones.

But cartel-related highway robberies, kidnappings and police corruption have marred that tradition in recent years, particularly in the border state of Tamaulipas. As many as 80 people, including a handful of U.S. citizens of Mexican descent, have disappeared in the past 12 months along the highway between Nuevo Laredo and Monterrey, according to Mexico’s National Search Commission.

That’s why Fernando Rocha Mier and a handful of activists resorted to the adage of finding safety in numbers. Their nonprofit Migrantes Unidos en Caravana on December 8 plans to lead as many as 1,500 vehicles from the parking lot of an events arena in Laredo, Texas, some 500 miles south into Mexico.

“Our main objective is that our countrymen arrive safely to their destination,” Rocha said Monday at a meeting with Mexican officials broadcast on social media. “There is no cost to join the caravan and we are working closely with state governments and numerous police departments” to guarantee the safety of the travelers.

Fernando Rocha Mier (top left) holds a planning meeting with Mexican-American activists, and Mexican government officials for the Dec. 8 caravan set to leave for Mexico from Laredo, Texas. (Image taken from Zoom)

The caravan is slated to leave the Energy Arena parking lot and cross into Mexico around 5 a.m. Already some 500 travelers from Texas, Illinois, Georgia, North Carolina and elsewhere have registered online, and the group is advising them to procure temporary vehicle import permits, tourist visas and other necessary documents with the Mexican government. Proof of COVID-19 vaccination is also encouraged. A second caravan could be leaving Laredo a week later, depending on demand.

Police in the states of Tamaulipas, Nuevo Leon, San Luis Potosi and Queretaro have pledged to escort the caravan through main highways; a group called Angeles Verdes has pledged to provide free mechanical assistance for vehicles. The Mexican government has established toll-free numbers and an email to report problems, including extortion attempts by public servants. Travelers can call 800-201-8542 while in Mexico or make a complaint upon their return to the U.S. at 1-877-210-9469. The email is heroespaisanos@inami.gob.mx.

A vehicle with Texas license plates and a load of items on top makes its way south along I 35, Friday, Dec. 14, 2007. The city of Laredo and the Mexican Consulate opened a station at the 18-mile marker of southbound Interstate to provide assistance for Mexican citizens who are heading south to Mexico to visit family for the holidays. (AP Photo/Laredo Morning Times/Ricardo Santos)

In El Paso, several farmworkers in the U.S. under HB2 agricultural visas are also planning to go home for the holidays knowing they’re always a risk of falling prey to criminals, said Carlos Marentes, executive director of the Border Farm Workers Center.

Marentes said these travelers are often targeted in Mexico because they’re going home carrying money they earned in the United States. “We encourage them to travel with friends, if possible, to keep their eyes open at all times and to avoid traveling at night,” Marentes said.

He added that criminals sometimes set up illegal roadblocks to rob passengers on commercial buses. “We had a farmworker who was robbed on the Juarez-Chihuahua City highway in this manner,” he said.

Marentes added he still hears cases of Mexican customs officers asking for bribes from people driving over with stoves, microwave ovens and other large appliances.

A dangerous journey just going back home

Rocha organized the first southbound migrant caravan in 2010 after fielding numerous complaints from “paisanos” – as Mexicans returning from the U.S. are known in their old homeland – regarding highway robberies and extortion at Mexican customs and police checkpoints.

The group met with numerous officials to pitch the value of ensuring the safety and a good travel experience for Mexican-Americans that contribute billions of dollars a year to Mexico’s economy.

A family eats during a stop on the road to Morelia, in Michoacan, Mexico, Dec. 4, 2004. Each year hundreds of Mexican-US citizens leave California in USA to visit their homes, for the festive season. The Government provides a special police guard to avoid customs delays and robbery. (MARIO VAZQUEZ/AFP via Getty Images)

Their words echoed with local lawmakers like Jose Ramon Torres Garcia.

The state representative says U.S. residents last year sent $1.43 billion in remittances to relatives in cities and towns in San Luis Potosi. “In the past, they have been victims of organized crime and of criminals in uniform. We need to protect them from both. We want to ensure their safety and prevent they lose contact with their (extended) family,” Torres said.

The official said the bulk of the “paisanos” are headed for states like San Luis Potosi, Guanajuato, Michoacan and Queretaro. Previous caravans have dwindled as some vehicles break off for north-central states like Coahuila, Durango and Zacatecas. The travelers typically bring cash, small appliances and electronics, and other gifts to relatives they only see once a year or even less frequently.

Police extortion often centers on the premise that the visitors plan to gift their vehicles to parents, uncles or extended family members. The Mexican government has since come up with a system requiring a credit card deposit before issuing vehicle permits.