As drug violence rises, Mexicans with means accustomed to making weekend jaunts to Texas are increasingly taking to the skies to bypass one of their country's deadliest states.
Less than two years ago, trips from the industrial hub of Monterrey to visit family or shop here were so common that they had their own Spanish verb: "vamos a McAllear." But as the drug cartels battled for control of lucrative routes into the U.S., those straightforward 2 1/2-hour sprints along an empty highway became white-knuckled affairs that weighed lives against entertainment. For Mexicans with resources, flying has become a popular option.
"Security in Mexico is out of control," said Francisco Garcia, owner of GID Express, a McAllen-based charter company whose two 12-passenger planes connect wealthy families from Monterrey, Tampico and Ciudad Victoria with U.S. border cities. "We just arrived at the right time at the right place."
According to U.S. Customs and Border Protection, the number of passengers arriving from across the border on private planes was up 93 percent at McAllen Miller International Airport in the first six months of 2011 when compared with the first six months of 2009, when northeast Mexico remained relatively peaceful. At Brownsville South Padre Island International Airport, the number is up 63 percent. More than 10,500 passengers came to McAllen on private planes from outside the U.S. during all of last year and more than 8,300 to Brownsville, increases of nearly 50 percent for both airports from the previous year.
Those increases have coincided with a rise in drug violence in Tamaulipas state in Mexico's northeast corner that has spread to Monterrey and surrounding Nuevo Leon state.
For charter air taxi companies such as Garcia's, business has boomed. His cross-border business more than doubled in the past year from an average of 380 per month to 780 passengers per month, even though his planes rent for $1,300 per hour.
The country's largest commercial airline, AeroMexico, started a new route between Monterrey and Brownsville in July that has kept its 50-seat plane near 100 percent capacity this summer. Aeromar, another Mexican carrier, began a new route between Tamaulipas's capital Ciudad Victoria and Reynosa, an important industrial city on the border in June.
The AeroMexico route makes Brownsville the only Texas border city with a direct commercial flight to Mexico. Brownsville's economic development arm recently approved an incentive package aimed at extending the flights another year.
"Their target would be the tourists coming into South Padre Island from Monterrey," said Gilberto Salinas, vice president of the Brownsville Economic Development Council. "Easily half of the investment in South Padre Island is coming from northern Mexico."
Those who fly are trying to avoid drug violence that, according to official figures, has killed at least 35,000 in Mexico since late 2006, when President Felipe Calderon launched his crackdown on organized crime. Other sources, including local media, say the number is closer to 40,000. The government has not released updated numbers since December.
In Tamaulipas, which stretches along the Texas border from Laredo to Brownsville, deaths related to drug violence reached 1,209 in 2010, far surpassing 76 a year earlier, according to the government's official count. The jump was attributed to a territorial battle between the Zetas and their former sponsor the Gulf Cartel.
Sergio Narvaez, a 30-year-old from Monterrey who was headed to McAllen for the weekend, was one of several passengers on an AeroMexico flight to Brownsville on Friday who said he flew for safety. Asked if he used to drive the route, he said in Spanish, "Yes, we always came on the highway. We never flew."
The flight's biggest drawback: He had to arrive at the airport two hours early because it's an international flight. Nonetheless, he said, demand was high.
Many passengers who were interviewed didn't want to give their names because of concerns about security. Garcia said his customers are extremely private for fear of attracting the attention of extortionists.
One woman who lives in Mission, Texas, but asked not to be identified because her parents remain in Mexico, said she used GID Express in December for a flight home to Tampico, about a 5 1/2-hour drive south of Brownsville.
For a while she and her parents made visits by bus. But then mass graves were discovered near San Fernando, along the route from Tampico to the border. Word spread that many of the victims had been pulled from buses.
"We stopped driving maybe a year ago," she said.
As demand for charter flights has risen, so has the cost. Her parents now fly from Tampico to Reynosa, then cross the border.
The airlines' prices fluctuate. But for a long weekend in September, AeroMexico's round-trip flight from Monterrey to Brownsville recently listed at $377. Aeromar quoted a price of $236 for a round-trip flight from Ciudad Victoria to Reynosa.
GID Express averages 10 flights per week between the U.S. and Mexico, Garcia said. While a big chunk of his new charter business has come from Tampico, his bread and butter are the very wealthy from Monterrey who rent his planes and pack them with extended family and friends for weddings or even just serious shopping.
"When the ladies come shopping they want six ladies in the plane because if not there's no room on the plane for what they buy," Garcia said. Some have their drivers bring the SUV from Monterrey to the U.S., pick them up at the airport and return to the city with their shopping bags. "We fly like crazy with people who want to shop."