EL PASO, Texas - For Denver cook Eloy Sanchez, Mexico's escalating drug war means his dash home to Mexico for Christmas has never been more dangerous -- so he is trying to minimize the risks.
"We are sticking together to take care of each other," said Sanchez, 42, as he prepared to roll south from Texas in a small convoy of vehicles through Ciudad Juarez, where 3,000 people have been killed in raging drug violence since January.
"There's .... hit men and people who rob you and assault you on the road," he added.
Around a million U.S.-based Mexicans head south each Christmas along the length of the border from California to South Texas.
This year travelers such as Sanchez, who is headed for the Pacific coast resort of Acapulco, are taking extra precautions for their safety as they run a gauntlet of spiraling drug violence and lawlessness to get home.
Since President Felipe Calderon took office four years ago and pledged to crush powerful drug gangs, more than 30,000 people have been murdered in the deepening mayhem, most of them in northern and central Mexico.
Mexican authorities are also concerned about additional risks on the roads this year and are urging travelers to take steps to stay safe.
"We are more concerned ... than in previous years as there has been an increase in drug violence and banditry," said Alejandro Orbezo, a Mexican consular official in charge of the "Paisano" program for returning migrants in the western United States.
"We are urging people not to drive after dark, not to bring a lot of cash with them, and to drive in caravans for their safety and to prevent accidents," he added.
The cartel heartlands of Tamaulipas state, south of Texas, and Sinaloa state in western Mexico are of particular concern for authorities, following reports of drivers being stopped and robbed at gunpoint on the highways, Orbezo said.
In a bid to stay safe on the sprint across an increasingly violent strip of northern Mexico, some travelers are opting to drive home through out-of-the way border towns that they hope will be safer.
Among them was Samuel Rojas, 46, driving a pickup truck packed with boxes, cooking pots and children's bicycles through Douglas, a remote ranching town in southeastern Arizona, on his way home to Durango in northwest Mexico.
"I think it's safer on this route, nothing has happened here," said Rojas as he filled his truck with gas at a filling station just short of the border.
Mexican authorities are providing an emergency phone number -- 066, which is equivalent to 911 in the United States -- for travelers in difficulties.
They can also dial 078 for assistance if they have a mechanical breakdown on the highway.
But wary of notoriously corrupt police, some making the dash home in the final days before Christmas said they were unlikely to use it.
"I'm more scared of the federal police than the criminals," said Maria Castillo, 21, a housewife from Long Beach, California, crossing south into Tijuana, Mexico, on her way to visit family in Sinaloa. (Additional reporting by Lizbeth Diaz in Tijuana; editing by Greg McCune and Eric Beech)
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