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Bound for Home

As he sat in traffic last Saturday on the final stretch of I-35 in Laredo in a truck loaded with U.S. goods, Higinio Navarrette was a microcosm of the holiday season on the border: an area where the local economy is as affected by security and cartel-related violence as it is by the nationwide economic slowdown.

Thousands of motorists wait in line on the southernmost stretch of IH-35 in Laredo, Texas. Despite a global recession and escalating violence in Mexico thousands of "paisanos" still made the trek south for Christmas. As the hours passed, however, their concerns about traveling Mexico's highways at night grew. A recent prison break in Nuevo Laredo didn't help soothe their fears about bandits lurking on the roadways. "We might have to get a hotel here," said one traveler.

The sun was close to setting on the southern stretch of I-35 in Laredo on Saturday when Higinio Alfredo Navarrette’s thoughts turned to his two daughters, wife and mother in San Luis Potosí, Mexico, about 450 miles away. His white Ford pickup, loaded with a washer, a TV and toys for Christmas, stood motionless less than a mile before the international boundary marking the entrance into Mexico.

After waiting in line for hours to get home for the holidays, it looked like he might have to travel at night on one of the country’s deadliest roads leading from the border to the interior, a common hijacking point for cartel operatives.

“I will need to ask the military when I get there — to see if people are traveling in groups or if there is a helicopter patrolling the area,” said Navarrette, who has made the trek from Kilgore the last three years. A prison escape reported the previous day, in which authorities believe 140 alleged Zeta cartel reinforcements walked out of a Nuevo Laredo prison, added to his concern. “I am surprised, though,” he said. “There are still more people than last year.”

Navarrette is a microcosm of the holiday season on the Texas-Mexico border, an area where the local economy is as affected by security and cartel-related violence as it is by the nationwide economic slowdown. Caught in the crush of holiday travelers trying to get through the heightened border crossing security were paisanos like himself, living in the United States and returning home for Christmas, as well as Mexicans who had come across for quick shopping trips and were heading back into Mexico.“Through the month of December, we’ve seen a noticeable marked increase in traffic, and we are very thankful for that,” said Les Norton, the owner of La Fama clothing store and executive director of the Laredo Downtown Merchants Association. “But I think that what’s interesting is for every one customer that we encounter in our store, there are probably four of five of his family members that didn’t make the trip to Laredo because they were afraid.”

Norton said that in past years, shoppers from Monterrey and Mexico City were the key to a successful season. He said this year would most likely match 2009 sales, which were down from previous years.

To many Mexicans, like Alfredo Hernandez Ybañez, who drove from Monterrey, Nuevo León, the trip is still worth it, even if he has apprehension. The lure to purchase goods in the United States — where appliances are cheaper, clothes are more modern and the variety of goods is greater — still leads him and his wife and two daughters to cross the border to shop. Their biggest frustration was the lengthy wait at the international bridges.

“I don’t know why they don’t address the issue. It was like this last month,” he said after waiting in line for hours as his wife used her hand to shield her eyes from the warm South Texas sun. “We had to rent a hotel room so we wouldn’t travel at night. That was $100 I spent that I didn’t have.”

That’s part of the dynamic of living on the border today, Norton said.

“As a merchant we don’t like to see it because I know it’s affecting my business,” he said, while adding that the people working at customs are just doing  their jobs. “And they have our best interests at heart,” he said, “so it’s a double-edged sword.”

Outside of the city limits, about 13 miles from the border, tallies from the city of Laredo’s “paisano rest stop” reflect another juxtaposition. There, officials from the United States and Mexican governments team up with city employees to offer help for travelers with questions about travel documents, tolls, hotel listings and even car repair. The license plates on the vehicles there indicate journeys that originated in Texas, Arkansas, Illinois, Florida, Utah and Alabama, among others.

Despite travel advisories from both governments and a death toll that has exceeded 30,000 in Mexico since 2006, the ties that bond families together appear, at least during the holidays, to be stronger than the fear that circulates on the border.

Officials with the Mexican consulate’s office in Laredo said nearly 2,200 vehicles stopped there last weekend, up from 2009’s 1,250.

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