Many thousands who emigrated to northern Mexico in search of livelihood and a better life have made a hasty exit from the murder capital Ciudad Juarez in a bid to escape a bloody drug war.
Diego Ramirez was one of countless young Mexicans who flocked to the frontier area with the United States for jobs in the factories and assembly plants that sprang up after the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement.
AdvertisementBut he and his family were among 2,300 people from the Gulf coast state of Veracruz who, opting for safety over financial stability, recently boarded charter flights back home to start over again.
"We had to leave our house empty. We had nearly paid for it all, but it was either that or risk getting caught up in a shootout," said Ramirez, who caught a flight to Veracruz paid for by the state government. With him were his two sons and their 76-year-old grandmother.
Ramirez had scraped together what little money he had and borrowed the rest, to buy his house; now he doesn't know what will become of it.
"I left the keys with the neighbors, and they'll try to rent it out," he said.
It is here in this city of 1.3 million people, just across the Rio Grande from El Paso, Texas, that the settling of scores between drug cartels and their clashes with the army and police have been Mexico's deadliest.
Some 28,000 people have been killed in drug violence across Mexico since President Felipe Calderon took office in December 2006, their bodies riddled with bullets, or burned beyond recognition, or hung from bridges, heaped on roadsides, buried in mass graves, or decapitated.
The explosion of violence has rocked the third most populous country in the Americas, and in particular Ciudad Juarez, the epicenter of a ferocious turf war between the Juarez and Sinaloa cartels.
There have been more than 2,700 killings in Juarez this year, exceeding the record of 2,660 homicides recorded in 2009, and stories of residents being caught in the crossfire or students gunned down at parties has become commonplace.
In one chilling episode in October, hooded men with rifles stepped out of a van, stormed into a backyard party and started shooting indiscriminately at dozens of young partygoers, according to officials.
At least 14 died and 20 were wounded. Investigators billed it as the third such massacre in Juarez this year.
Like many, Ramirez gave up his job as a laborer, and abandoned a house in Riveras del Bravo, a neighborhood near the Texas border inhabited mostly by Veracruz families who had been lured to Ciudad Juarez by higher wages and ample job opportunities.
Where his family will bed down next is a mystery. Ramirez said his brothers have promised to employ him in a workshop back home.
The scope of the charter flight program reflects the authorities' concern over the bloodshed. But thousands of Veracruzanos haven't waited for government aid, heading home on their own.
Daniel Badillo, an official working on the migrant returnee program, estimated a total of 14,000 people who were living in 60 villages along the US border have packed up and returned to Veracruz.
Almost all say their decision hinged on the shocking violence in Ciudad Juarez.
A study released Wednesday by the Autonomous University of Juarez estimated that least 32,868 homes in the city have been abandoned.
"The most affected areas are the south and east of the city, where 53 percent of these homes are located," said Socorro Velasquez, one of the study's authors.
Many of the returning migrants are clearly anxious about uprooting from Juarez, giving up on their dreams of jobs and stable homes.
"We wanted to stay until Christmas, but it's better that we leave beforehand, because my mom thinks she will breathe easier when I go out with my friends," said Rosa.
The teenage girl insisted she was happy to be returning to celebrate the New Year in Tlacotalpan, the town that her parents had left more than a decade ago.