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Why Mexico's migrant caravan is a journey worth taking

  • Ediz Tiyansan
  • 23 Jun 2019

Most migrants have much more deeply-rooted reasons to leave everything behind and walk towards the unknown.

Migrant Caravan ( Reuters )

“Would I make my family go through this, if it wasn’t a matter of life and death?” asked Solomon, while shaking his head in response to his own rhetorical question. A soft-spoken devout Christian with two children, Solomon said his priority was a “dignified life” for his family and he was convinced Honduras could no longer offer that.

I met him in November 2018 in Mexico City, nearly halfway into their seemingly never-ending journey to the US-Mexico border. Over the last three weeks, they had smuggled themselves across several borders, walked hungry for hundreds of kilometers under scorching heat, spent freezing nights on the streets and got sick multiple times as they made their way as part of a caravan moving across Central America along with thousands of other migrants, most aiming to seek asylum in the United States.

They move in convoys of hundreds to facilitate a journey, which could otherwise be extremely dangerous. Central American countries and Mexico have earned a reputation for being precarious even for their own citizens’ safety.

Many travellers in the past have died on the same route —some were mugged, some kidnapped by cartels… The risks are too many for any family to consider undertaking this journey entirely on their own. 

“Pueblo sin Fronteras” (also known as, “People without Borders") is an NGO that has been organising similar caravans for several years. They carefully pick the travel route in order to avoid the cartel-dominated zones as much as possible and make sure to keep migrants on the road only during daylight hours.

One day, as we moved along with the caravan in the Mexican state of Veracruz, an incident that took place nearby left a chilling effect on all of us. An armed group from a local cartel entered a restaurant where a local elected official was having a meal with colleagues. Gangs asked him to go with them. When he refused, he was shot dead on the spot.

Kidnappings are a common place as much as the killings of politicians and officials. And the target does not always have to be high profile. Cartels make profits trading drugs, arms, and favours, but at times, even poor migrants may be considered profitable — since their relatives could be forced to pay cartel members in another country.

Some areas were considered particularly risky, so the Mexican Police decided to establish a presence along the migrants’ route, at times, even escorting them with their cars. In one such instance outside the city of Cordoba, I asked a police officer whether there was any specific threat. He explicitly warned that they were taking precautions because “anything could happen, any time of the day.”

It was in that state of mind that thousands of migrants pushed their way north, constantly worried about their safety. Adding to that was the worry of having enough food and water to outlast the extreme conditions. Everyday proved to be yet another struggle, mentally and physically.  

Migrants in the caravan often take their strength from their numbers and manage to survive its hardships through solidarity. On cold nights they huddle in groups and during the day they share the little stock they have to last the long march. They take turns carrying babies and the carefully-chosen belongings they decided not to leave behind. Knowing that memories they hold on to from their previous lives could make their future lives harder to reach, they took with them as little as possible.

Their multitude in numbers could also mean trouble at times, with one person’s flu spreading like wildfire among the group. Nearly everyone had got sick at some point. 

It was the chronic hunger and sickness that made the journey particularly hard - casting occasional doubts on whether they will ever make it to the United States. Fatigue coupled with extreme conditions made it harder to recover from any sickness. But most migrants were convinced that there was no other alternative, and this collective conviction kept them moving forward.

On many of their stops in Mexico, local authorities or residents provided food, water, and medicine. Other times, they were not so lucky. For many, going to bed hungry was nothing new. Not taking showers or not having a mattress to sleep on had also become the ordinary. After all, tough conditions were not that hard to overcome for a determined and resilient crowd of migrants, dreaming of a better life. 

The migrants’ longest stop was in the Mexican Capital. For over a week, Mexico City’s largest sports complex was turned into what looked like a make-shift refugee camp. Tents hosting over a hundred refugees each, were scattered on a vast space of baseball, football or athletics fields. The sheer size and capacity of these facilities reflected on Mexico’s reputation as the largest city in North America.

After spending days on the road, settling in a temporary shelter helped boost migrants’ hopes and morale. For most, it was the first time in weeks they were granted some relief and areas an opportunity to shower wash clothes, and have access to hot meals served all day long.

They even had a stage built for entertainment. Throughout the day, massive speakers blasted songs known to all Latinos, no matter where in Central America they come from.

One afternoon, the stage was converted to a boxing ring that featured costumed “super-heroes” throwing fake punches and kicks, as an exhilarated commentator yelled amplifying the dramatic effect. An odd scene at first sight, it seemed to catch the interest of a crowd who told me this was the first time they got to laugh things off over the last few weeks. It was then that I realised that humour, too, was scarce, and that it was just another one of those needs that relieved their minds and bodies.

Donations flew in like no tomorrow. What used to be the car park of the city’s largest sports complex was now only open to official cars and journalists. Many Mexicans who brought second-hand clothes and donations had to park outside and walk a fair distance to be useful to the people they empathised with over the last few weeks.

The migrant caravan had been all over the news since the day it first reached the Mexican border. Anti-riot water cannons had dispersed a horde of migrants rushing to cross the border at first, only to allow them to cross in an orderly manner over the course of few days. 

Migrants’ gradual advance through Mexico had been closely monitored by several local TV stations. The US President Donald Trump’s increasingly harsher rhetoric ahead of the US mid-term elections, carried the group’s plight onto international headlines. “They will steal your jobs and create chaos in your communities,” Trump had said in rallies in an effort to galvanise his support base. But it also led to the empathy of some, who otherwise might not have known about this mass exodus. 

Mexico, too, had mixed reactions towards the group. A father and son brought bags of used shoes and clothes to one of the “donation tents” in the capital. “We wanted to help in any way we can,” the father said. They had collected unused items in their neighbourhood, hoping to facilitate the long remaining journey for these travellers. “We hope they can make it to the border,” his son said. Despite his young age, he appeared to understand the harsh realities in this country.

 “What if they don’t make it and end up staying?” I asked. The father and son looked at each other and shrugged. They said Mexico already has many migrants and a whole set of its own problems. They weren’t necessarily opposed to Mexico hosting them, but they were skeptical of their country’s capacity to host more Central Americans than they already do, in an economy that doesn’t meet the expectations of the average Mexican. 

The migrants agreed. Many of them knew that they could ask for asylum right here, right now. But “what’s the point,” they thought, as it would not be a whole lot better than what they’ve left behind in Honduras, Guatemala, or El Salvador. Not for the economic prospects, nor for their safety.

The same cartels they fled in their countries are often active in parts of Mexico, as well. So their primary goal is to make it all the way to the United States, where they thought they would have true protection and better prospects for making a living — dreams that kept them motivated no matter how arduous the journey became. 


Worth it?

As a journalist, it was interesting for me to see first-hand the conditions these people are willing to endure in order to change their lives. It makes me wonder whether I would do the same if I was a Honduran living in the communities they’ve left behind. And I wonder how bad the situation is?

The truth is that true struggles of  lower-income Central Americans have been underreported across the world. It is easy to assume, just as President Donald Trump has previously done, that these people are “economic migrants” who are simply looking for prosperity, or as some refer to it, the “American Dream.”

Once you scratch the surface of their stories, it soon becomes clear that “safety and security” is also a major factor that goes into the tough decision of leaving everything behind for a journey that offers a lot of uncertainties and no guarantees.

That’s why many people are afraid to speak up on record. Knowing that they might be ultimately forced to go back, and once again live at the mercy of cartels that dominate their neighbourhoods and cities.

Several youngsters I’ve spoken to have told me that their primary motivation for leaving was to escape gang violence. Among them was Fernando -who had recently turned 18 - who had to make an almost-spontaneous decision to leave behind all his family and friends in Honduras. 

Fernando’s options were clear: either stay and join the gangs, or escape. He told me off-camera that many youth are forced to join the ranks of the cartels or face the consequences.

It was a similar ordeal for Marvin, another Honduran in his early 20s. “My life had turned upside-down overnight,” he said to me, still outraged at what had happened to him only weeks ago.

As a young Honduran, Marvin had considered himself lucky to have a job. But working as a security guard for a big private firm made him an ideal target for the cartels. One night, gangs followed him all the way to his home, barged in, and threatened him at gun-point in front of his family: “Collaborate with us or say good-bye to your family.” 

Marvin did not want to lose an income considered not so bad for Honduran standards, much less did he want to get involved in any organized crime. But the trauma of seeing his family at gun point left him no other choice, but to hit the road. Though, he did not name the specific cartel, he told me, “nowhere is safe for me anymore, their members are everywhere…!”

In many Central American countries, government and security forces are tainted with widespread corruption allegations. It’s often considered absurd for anyone who gets into trouble with gangs to go and seek help from the police.

Confidence in the security forces is minimal. People assume that they just seek to collect bribes, and in some cases, collaborate with the gangs themselves. Many past incidents have proven to citizens that in certain neighbourhoods, it’s the armed cartels that run the show.

Amid growing unemployment rates and the scarcity of economic opportunities, it is easy for the underprivileged to fall into the trap of organised crime, where members of the cartel get to at least feed their families, who would otherwise starve.

But trading drugs, arms, and favours is not always easy money. Gangs from different cartels constantly clash with each other or the police, in order to keep their territory. More than often, they claim other lives or lose their own.

Fernando is one of many youngsters who does not want that future. But the reality on the ground did not offer him any alternatives. He said he was trapped between two options leading to the same end: getting killed working for a cartel or escaping from it.

As I was speaking to Fernando, the image of President Donald Trump conjured up in my head — a recent memory of him addressing one of the election rallies, where he accused migrants in the caravan of being MS-13 members, without any substantiation. 

But the truth is, the infamous MS-13 not only emerged within the United States, but also constitutes less than 1% of total gang membership in the country. And the bigger irony to Trump’s allegation is that many youth I’ve met in the caravan are actually there, exactly because they want a safe haven from the gangs in their countries.

Solomon also feared a similar fate looming for his own children. He wouldn’t let them go out to play on the streets, fearful of potential shoot-outs that occasionally claim innocent lives. He did not want to raise them in an environment of constant insecurity, and a future full of uncertainty.

Solomon, himself, had been feeling the threats of cartels in his neighbourhood, where he ran a small food store to make ends meet. Like most businesses in the area, he, too, was approached by gangs asking for protection money. Some even see it as “tax money” collected by cartels who control the area, given the power vacuum caused by the absence of effective policing, either out of weakness or corruption.

Solomon did not have any choice but to pay “his dues” to the gangs in charge. It was so that he “wouldn’t get into any trouble” but the so-called taxing was arbitrary and increasingly expensive. Gangs showed up more frequently and asked for bigger sums, and each time, threatening him and his family.

Solomon watched his profit margin decline over several months, until it disappeared altogether. His business no longer offered an income to feed his children. Instead, it turned into forced-labor that served the cartel alone. Many other examples in the area showed him that the lack of his allegiance could easily cost him his life —or worse, those of his family. 

His only option was to flee, and do so without ever coming back. The network of the cartels extended into other regions, in many cases onto neighbouring countries. That’s why he couldn’t take the risk of re-settling anywhere in the vicinity. The caravan was the perfect opportunity to make it all the way to the US — his safest bet.

Solomon was not a unique case at all. Many testimonies in the caravan resemble his desperation. And witnesses say that thousands of families in their communities suffer daily persecution and fear for their lives. 

It’s within this context that many human rights lawyers make the case for an asylum request. They claim that many of these people are unable or unwilling to return to their country of origin because of a well-founded fear of being persecuted, and that they should be protected as refugees under international law.

Though there is no guarantee that every person in the caravan would qualify as a refugee, and in fact, not everyone necessarily is there to seek asylum. Refugee status is of course granted on a case-by-case basis, as each particular individual could present a significantly different set of conditions. 

We were surprised to hear reports that there were African migrants, who’d joined the caravan, too —an argument that was immediately turned into another anti-immigration propaganda to undermine the legitimacy of a cause shared by most in the caravan.

Over the course of several weeks I’ve spent following the caravan, I never encountered a non-central American migrant. The group was dominated mostly by Hondurans, followed by Guatemalans and Salvadorians. A minority of Nicaraguans, and towards the end, even some Mexicans had also joined the journey.

Based on dozens of interviews I’ve conducted, I could easily vouch for the fact that the majority of these migrants could at least make the case for asylum. However, a minority of cases could be said to be stretching the definition of refugee.

Dina is a single mother of two. I met her in one of the busiest tents hosting migrants in Mexico City. Families were sitting on mattresses scattered around, leaving just enough space to walk through the tent. Dina was sitting with two other women, also single mothers, who’ve met each other on the way and decided to stick to each other in solidarity.

The women all looked exhausted and confused. All of their children had gotten sick on the way multiple times. Even when pushed to their limits, they did not refuse to answer a few questions. Shy to the camera at first, Dina eventually had the courage to open up.

Dina had been totally isolated by her entire family, especially after separating from her husband. She cooked pastry on the streets, but barely had enough to feed her two children. She could not afford to pay rent and was forced to spend her nights sleeping under a bridge. She burst into tears, as she said she had nowhere to go.

Once we turned off our camera, she revealed a few more details, about the threats and abuse she suffered at the hands of her husband and his family. So it appeared, it might not have been just the destitution she fled, but rather the domestic violence she said she'd been facing.

This interview had once again demonstrated to me that migrants may have much more deeply-rooted reasons to leave everything behind and undertake a journey to the unknown. Some of those reasons are so sensitive and personal that they may not easily surface at an encounter with a journalist.

Many people were a lot more afraid of even showing their faces to the cameras — fearful of the slightest possibility that those who persecute or threaten them might see their location and decide to harm them or the loved ones they’ve left behind.

The stories of Solomon, Fernando, Marvin, and Dina are all quite different from each other, but they all have something in common: A constant sense of insecurity and fear for their safety. The driving force that pushed them forward appears to be the conviction that no matter how arduous, their distinct reasons make it a journey worth taking.


 Mexico as the mediator

The caravan’s slow but steady advance towards the US border was framed by the White House as an imminent national security threat. After having insulted Mexican immigrants during his presidential campaign, Donald Trump chose to stigmatise Central American migrants on the eve of the US mid-term elections.

In fact, US President Donald Trump had telephoned his Mexican counterpart Enrique Pena Nieto to put pressure on him to stop the caravan. On the ground, this request immediately translated into Mexican government efforts to try and make migrants stay.

Pena Nieto had one of Mexico’s lowest approval rates for a President as he neared his last month in office. He announced that “migrants in the caravan would get a temporary official ID in Mexico, and be able to access the temporary work program.” He also assured that they "will be able to get medical attention and even send [their] kids to school.”

Knowing that Mexico could be an option to settle and start a new life came as a relief to most in the caravan, who’d been overwhelmed with so many unknowns regarding rest of their journey. To the extent that even psychological help was among the services offered to them while in Mexico City.

A local psychiatric NGO set up a tent, where migrants could make appointments and consult experts about their psychological issues. Marlen was one of those Mexican volunteers. She told me that scores of migrants she’d counselled were in so much distress and anxiety that they struggled in making the decision on whether to stay or continue.

It was symbolic and ironic in so many ways that right next to the tent offering psychological help, were other tents set up by the International Organisation for Migrations (ION), UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), Mexico’s own Immigration Agency, and other NGOs offering free legal counselling.

One could see migrants getting out from one tent and lining up at another one. They were discussing with each other about the best way forward. The only thing they all agreed on is that three-to-four weeks on the road had already pushed them to the edge. And realising that it was less than half way into their journey, those who could actually go back started considering that option.

I saw Christian and his friends signing papers inside the tent of IOM, which was offering migrants assisted return to their countries, if they voluntarily choose to do so. A group of friends, some of them as young as teenagers, had heard about the caravan passing through their town and decided to jump on board for the “heck of it.” As he casually joked and laughed with his friends, Cristian told me they “never thought it was going to take so long,” and that they ran out of money and got sick so many times, while spending hungry days on the road. And so now given the opportunity, they decided to head back, and maybe he said, next time they could plan it properly. 

Later I met Cristopher Gascon, the representative of IOM on the ground, who told me that at the time, they’d registered about a hundred people willing to go back to their countries. Obviously, a small minority in a caravan of more than 5 thousand migrants.

Around the same time, the Honduran government announced a program with 27 million dollars of funding to provide support in housing, education, or investment for small enterprises. Supposedly, an incentive for emigrants to go back. But very few had actually heard about it, and far less had any trust in their government. And anyhow, financial incentives did not help those who’ve fled because of security reasons.

Another small group did not take issue with settling in Mexico when given the option. Especially those who felt a better sense of security there, or those who already have relatives in the country. Some were also swayed by the level of attention they received during their long break in the Mexican capital, where relief came in the form of food, medicine, and accommodation, among others.

However, many migrants did understand that the make-shift refugee camp and its resources were not there to stay. Soon after the caravan’s moved on and the media’s dropped them from the headlines, they would simply become part of the Central American migrant community in Mexico — hundreds of thousands that struggle every day to make ends meet.

To most people in the caravan though, Mexico’s offer came as good news, but more of a plan-B to fall back on, only if their goal to reach the US fails. Mexico’s incentives and its attempts to convince them to stay clearly hadn’t worked. “Thanks, but no, thanks” was the average response. 

Migrants wondered if the Mexican government could instead help them get to the US border. Repeated requests from “Pueblo sin Fronteras” did not yield any response from the government. Instead, there was a feeling of reluctance on the government’s part towards helping them reach their primary goal. It was ultimately a private firm that decided to sponsor buses that would take some of the migrants on their journey north. Many Mexicans also helped them out on the way, as several trucks and vehicles offered a ride to their next destination.


US border — the end or just the beginning of a nightmare? 

The ultimate goal for the caravan was to make it into the United States, so many migrants inevitably assumed that reaching the border was as close as it gets to victory. In reality, most cases demonstrated that it may be only the beginning of yet another nightmare —in some cases, even more difficult than the journey thus far.

A couple of weeks before the caravan reached the border, President Donald Trump explicitly said in a rally, that he would not allow the migrant caravan to enter the United States. He deployed nearly 6 thousand troops to the southern border and in an unprecedented move, his administration changed the asylum regulations, establishing that only those who cross through the official ports of entry would be considered for asylum. 

The UNHCR responded saying that, “National security and dignified reception of refugees and asylum-seekers are not mutually exclusive, but rather mutually reinforcing.” The international body claimed that the “long-standing insufficient reception capacity at official U.S. southern border ports of entry is resulting in significant delays in northern Mexico and is forcing many vulnerable asylum-seekers to turn in desperation to smugglers and cross the border irregularly.”

Trump's new regulation contradicts the “Immigration and Nationality Act”, which clearly states that a claim for asylum could be filed, regardless of how or where the individual has entered the country. Many considered the move a misuse of his executive powers.

Trump’s decision took me back to a previous incident from when I was covering a previous caravan earlier in 2018. Hundreds of migrants had gathered at the Tijuana border crossing. Many were sleeping on the streets without knowing when they’d be allowed to cross.

One of the organisers from “Pueblo sin Fronteras” was escorting a dozen people across the border and, when coming back out realising that no more would be admitted for the day, he protested in outrage, saying that “the US border control is one of the largest US law enforcement agencies, with the capacity to deport over a thousand people a day, but when it comes to asylum seekers, they say they’re at full capacity.”

Back then, it made more sense for many people to cross the border any way they could, often by sneaking through any opening they could find, and later file for asylum. But Trump’s new regulation would allow the US government to deport them for “entering illegally”, even if they have a valid case for asylum — a move, experts say, that’s at odds with international law.

Yet, former US Attorney General Jeff Sessions’s policy, enacted in April of 2018, had caused widespread outrage in the US, and abroad. Sessions introduced a “zero-tolerance policy” that saw adult migrants who cross the border illegally face criminal prosecution —over the course of which adults in custody, facing criminal charges, would have to be separated from their children, who would then be kept at detention centers.

I met the Guinac family during its last moments of unity, as they arrived at the Tijuana Border Crossing in northern Mexico, all the way from Guatemala. We filmed Maria and her husband, on a chilly morning, getting ready with their three children to walk over the bridge into the US to request asylum.

The father was separated immediately from the rest of the family and deported back to Mexico within days. It took months for us to contact the rest of the family. Throughout that period the mother and her three children were kept in different detention centers in different states.

After the Supreme Court’s decision to end the controversial “zero-tolerance policy” and set a deadline for family reunification, Maria met her children in New York. We interviewed her in a relative’s home in Los Angeles —where she waited for a court appointment.

She looked exhausted and embarrassed to have a large monitoring device shackled on her ankle. She said she didn’t even feel like going outside the house. And the moment she started recounting those months separated from her children, she burst into tears: “It was the worst moment of my life, “she said, “my children started crying, asking me not to leave them. I said it wasn’t me, that I was being ordered to leave them because the laws here are so strict. And I couldn’t stay strong in front of them, it was so painful,” she said, shedding more tears.

All her children remained very quiet, and seemed almost broken compared to the last time I had seen them before crossing the border. Her 5-year-old, the youngest one, still wakes up to nightmares, crying in the middle of the night —a sign of trauma, Maria says.

We showed them our interview with Maria’s husband, who is still in Mexico following his deportation. “Baba” yelled the youngest one, as it was the first time he saw his father since Tijuana. Their lives are still far from certain. Maria wants to wait for the court date — to see if she still has a chance to obtain refugee status in the US. 

I asked her whether she’d still go ahead with this journey, if she’d known these things could happen. She looked down and kept quiet — too fatigued to decide right away whether the gang violence in their hometown was worse after all than having a fractured and traumatised family. 

The majority of migrants who crossed the border one way or another, have been deported. Some like Fernando noticed that trend, and decided to wait for the right time and place to cross the border illegally and remain undocumented within the US. Even though they believe they have a strong case for asylum, they couldn’t risk being deported back to a country where they no longer feel safe.


{NOTE: The narrative is an excerpt taken from The Refugee's Messenger Lost Stories Retold, published by TRT World Research Centre.} 

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