CIUDAD JUAREZ, Mexico (Reuters) - Children in Ciudad Juarez are telling a dark joke this Christmas: Even Santa Claus is too scared to stop in Mexico's most violent city because drug gangs will charge extortion fees on his toys.
So firefighters took Santa's place, trying to bring some holiday cheer to the beleaguered city across from El Paso, Texas, by handing out thousands of free toys to poor children before Christmas Day on Saturday.
Hundreds of families, bundled up against the chill, waited in the central plaza since Thursday night for the care packages filled with wooden horses, dolls and stuffed animals.
The firefighters, some wearing red jackets and Santa hats, refurbish donated toys for the annual gift-giving event but this year destroyed all of the plastic guns they received, wary of encouraging violent games.
Hundreds of small gangs that operate in the city, where more than 3,000 people have been killed in drug violence this year, often recruit poor children and teenagers to work as lookouts or even hitmen.
"The whole city is very sad. Before it wasn't like this with so much violence and corruption," said Beatriz de la Cruz, 57, as she waited in line, hopeful the firefighters would give a bicycle to her granddaughters.
The firefighters said they gave out 500 bicycles and 13,000 packages to around 7,000 children this year.
The chaos in Ciudad Juarez, where rival gangs are battling over smuggling routes into the United States, highlights the challenges of Mexican President Felipe Calderon's war against the drug trade. Businesses have fled the city, once a booming manufacturing hub.
"My daughter doesn't have work, my husband is on a pension," de la Cruz said. "We've always tried to buy something for them. Now we can't."
Children often bear the brunt of the violence, losing parents or witnessing grizzly shootouts.
"We used to go out at night but now we don't any more because we're afraid something will happen to the children," said Rosa Tapia, a 26-year-old housewife who arrived just before dawn on Friday with her son and five nephews to wait for the gifts.
With police corruption rife across Mexico, Tapia and other parents said the firefighters are seen as one of the few trustworthy agencies left in the Ciudad Juarez.
Writing by Mica Rosenberg; Editing by John O'Callaghan