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Drivers too afraid to travel on Mexico's 'highway of death'

SAN FERNANDO, Mexico — This is the time of year when Mexican families traditionally drive long distances to celebrate Easter together. But Highway 101 through the border state of Tamaulipas is empty now: a spooky, forlorn, potentially perilous road where travelers join in self-defensive convoys and race down its four lanes at 90 miles per hour, stopping for nothing, and where nobody ever drives at night.

"My friends thought I was crazy to come down," said Ester Arce, traveling from Atlanta to San Luis Potosi in the south. Arce had stopped at a gas station, where she was waiting for her husband to retie the ropes holding down luggage in the bed of their pickup truck.

Her husband cut the conversation short.

"We got to get out of the state by nightfall or the criminals will get us," he said. Ester Arce added: "No one wants to drive the road."

As rumors spread that psychotic kidnappers were dragging passengers off buses and as authorities found mass graves piled with scores of bodies, people began calling this corridor "the highway of death" or "the devil's road."

On Thursday night, authorities announced the discovery of 32 more corpses. So far, 177 bodies have been found buried around the town of San Fernando.

The highway is so forbidding that even the news these past few weeks of the largest mass grave found in Mexico's four-year drug war cannot lure TV trucks or journalists onto the road.

The bodies discovered this month are in the same area where cartel kidnappers massacred 72 migrants from Central and South America in August. The terror has only spread since then. On Wednesday, Mexican authorities announced the rescue of 68 individuals found in a stash house in the border city of Reynosa. They had been snatched off buses or grabbed at bus stations.

In San Fernando, the governor of Tamaulipas, Egidio Torre Cantu, arrived for a meeting with city officials Tuesday accompanied by several hundred federal police and soldiers. There was a single Mexican TV crew there. It had arrived escorted by Mexican marines.

Highway 101 is not a country road. In normal times, it is the most heavily traveled thoroughfare in the state, as vital an artery for commerce and movement in Mexico as Interstate 95 is between Washington and Philadelphia. The highway funnels trade from the interior of Mexico to the busiest border crossings in the world, with 15 bridges from Tamaulipas into the United States along the Rio Grande from Nuevo Laredo to Matamoros.

But now people who have driven Highway 101 all their lives — people who, like their Texas neighbors, once thought nothing of driving four hours to go out to dinner with friends — refuse to get on the road.

"I waited almost two days in Brownsville, reading the newspapers, watching the news, trying to get up the courage to cross the border and come down," said Robert Avila, who lives in Dallas but often comes to the state capital, Ciudad Victoria, to visit his parents and siblings.

Drivers too afraid to travel on Mexico's 'highway of death' 04/22/11 [Last modified: Friday, April 22, 2011 10:18pm]
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