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Driving Mexico’s ‘highway of death’

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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 journey, where travelers join in self-defensive convoys and race down the four-lane road at 90 miles per hour, stopping for nothing, and 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 was stopped at a gas station, 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 apologized, “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.

Important road

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, 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.

“I thought about going home and getting my gun,” Avila said, but didn’t.

From the bus depot in Ciudad Victoria to the state morgue in the border city of Matamoros, where the 145 corpses were first taken, is 200 miles. The U.S. government has warned its citizens not to drive the road.

Some have taken to flying commuter planes along the route, rather than venture along the roadway. Bus companies stopped using the highway for two weeks, opting for a long, looping detour to the west, to Monterrey, adding hundreds of miles to the journey. 

Highway 101 passes through communal farm lands and ranches named after heroes of the Mexican revolution. The low hills are covered with scrub forests of mesquite, creosote and prickly pear, and the land looks thirsty because of a lingering drought that has left cows dead and bloated in the roadside ditches.

It is humid and 100 degrees, good for the vast fields of sorghum that stretch to the horizon. Many of the vendors who used to line the road are gone, their clapboard stands that sold beef jerky, grapefruit and barbecue abandoned. The remaining commerce mostly involves gas and beer. For years, Texans drove south on Highway 101 to fish for bass in Lake Guerrero and shoot doves in the game ranches, but all that has stopped. 

‘In God’s hands’

Henry Davila drove from Minnesota to Brownsville and waited at the border for friends to form a caravan. He was driving a minivan stuffed with household items and towing a compact car he planned to sell in his home town of Guatemala City. He makes the trip six times a year and never saw traffic so light.

“We’re in God’s hands,” he said and rumbled off.

Short sections of the highway are now crawling with troops and police. Patrols of masked marines wielding .50-caliber machine guns and grenade launchers roar down the road. During the four-hour drive, a traveler encounters five government roadblocks, where drivers are questioned and vehicles searched. More than 25 federal police cruisers are spotted.

The security is designed to calm nerves. 

“Of course, it is only a perception,” said Morelos Canseco Gomez, the lieutenant governor of Tamaulipas.

Canesco applauded the effort but offered a caution. “It’s not a matter of patrolling the roads, it’s a matter of gathering intelligence and information. Where do they hide? Where do they strike? Where do we get them? We’re not going to get them on the road,” he said.

© The Washington Post Company