'If our countries were safe, we wouldn't leave': the harsh reality of Mexico's migrant caravan
Swaying on a swing in a park teeming with Central American migrants in southern Mexico, Henry Juárez hardly looks like an invader ready to rush the US border – and certainly not an enemy the national guard forces being sent to the southern frontier by would have trouble stopping.
A slight 16-year-old with copper streaks in his hair wearing a singlet, sandals and baggy pants, he hit the perilous road through last month after seven gang-bangers burst into his home in El Salvador, put a pistol in his face and threatened to kill him and his family if he didn’t make an extortion payment of $100 (£71).
“I was going to stay in my own country. I had a good job,” said Juárez, who had worked for a company installing utility poles. “But they were asking me for money that I didn’t have.”
Juárez was among the more than 1,000 Central Americans trying to reach the United States in the annual “Stations of the Cross Caravan”. The caravan travels the length of Mexico and often raises awareness of the plight of migrants, who flee poverty and violence in some of the most murderous countries in the world and are robbed, kidnapped and raped on their perilous paths through the country.
But the caravan became controversial this year after conservative media in the US called it an “invasion”. Trump deemed it a threat to American national security and announced plans to to protect the US border.
This year’s caravan stalled after a spate of Trump tweets in the dilapidated railway town of Matías Romero on the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, some 650km southeast of Mexico City and thousands of kilometres more from its final destination of Tijuana, while organizers and Mexican immigration officials started talking.
Many of the migrants arrived penniless in a public park. They walked, hitchhiked, stole rides atop freight trains and climbed aboard empty lories after setting out from the Guatemala border in search of safety or a better lot in life.
Juárez didn’t eat for days and wore out a pair of sneakers on the 425km trek through southern Mexico. He started peddling single cigarettes – five packs a day, he boasts – to finance his trip.
He had heard of Trump’s tweets, but didn’t seem impressed, quipping: “This cabrón [bastard] says he’s going to kill all the migrants with nuclear weapons. He’s loco.”
Trump originally demanded Mexico stop the caravan, while decrying lax immigration enforcement south of the border, even though Mexico annually detains and deports tens of thousands of Central Americans.
On Thursday, he claimed victory, tweeting: “The caravan is largely broken up thanks to the strong immigration laws of Mexico and their willingness to use them so as not to cause a giant scene at our Border.” He added: “Because of the Trump Administrations actions, Border crossings are at a still UNACCEPTABLE 46 year low. Stop drugs!”
As with many of Trump’s tweets, the facts remain uncertain.
Some observers suspect the president’s tweets were timed to have an impact on his administration’s negotiations with Mexico and Canada over the North American Free Trade Agreement (Nafta) – especially as Mexico seems anxious to do a deal prior to its 1 July presidential election.
“This is a Trump negotiating tactic,” said Brenda Estefan, a former security attaché in the Mexican embassy in Washington. “It is attacking the other side so it arrives at the negotiating table weakened. It’s also taking an extreme position so it can be moderated then later.”
Mexico had responded meekly to Trump’s tweets, something Estefan says “creates this vision of a weak government and a weak country”.
It initially responded with similar feebleness to Trump’s proposals for the national guard, with foreign minister Luis Videgaray tweeting that Mexico had asked Trump to “clarify” his statements. But the posture stiffened the Senate passing a measure calling for the suspension of cooperation with the US on drug enforcement and migration matters.
The Mexican president, Enrique Peña Nieto, said on Thursday in a message to Trump: “If your recent statements are the result of frustration due to domestic policy issues, to your laws or to your Congress, it is to them that you should turn to, not to Mexicans.”
Caravan organisers scoffed at Trump’s proposal, too.
“The kids here have bibs, not guns,” said Irineo Mujíca, one of the caravan’s conveners as he stood amid a sea migrant children in a playground. “We don’t pose any threat to the United States.”
Organisers also dispute Trump’s claims that the caravan has been “largely broken up”, saying it would continue to Mexico City.
Mujíca, director of the migrants’ rights group Pueblos Sin Fronteras, says his group negotiated with Mexican immigration officials to provide caravan participants with papers giving them 20 days to leave the country or 30 days to sort out their migratory situation. Many of the more than 1,000 participants boarded buses on Thursday to travel to the city of Puebla, where they would receive legal advice from volunteer lawyers.
The Mexican authorities may not have spoken out firmly against Trump’s comments, but neither have they bowed to his demands.
“They didn’t act the way [Trump] wanted,” Mujíca said. “When Trump started tweeting, we were afraid. But the Mexican government responded humanely and sensibly. We didn’t expect that. We thought they would cave to Trump, but they didn’t.”
Caravan participants waited patiently on Thursday and sought shelter in the sparse shade at a parched sports park, where immigration officials processed their paperwork. Spirits were strong, despite anger over state government fumigators spraying the park with insecticides. Clowns entertained children, while villagers brought bundles of clothes and pots of food.
“Mexico also has a lot of migrants,” said Alejandro Rodríguez, 27, after serving zucchini and tomato stew made by his mother and 40 kg of tortillas. “We complain about the United States, but we do the same thing to Central Americans.”
Many of the migrants waiting to move on with the caravan or have their paperwork dealt with spoke well of their treatment in Mexico, but described terrifying situations in Central America.
“They’ve treated us very well,” said Shannel Smith, 27, a transgender woman from Honduras. Smith suffered discrimination in Honduras – she bravely showed three bullet wounds on her body and a steel plate in arm – and said gangs were approaching the trans population to peddle drugs. She refused and was told to change her mind within 24 hours. Instead, she left the country.
Joselyn Amador, 22, operated a small business selling mobile phone accessories in San Pedro Sula, Honduras, but also had to flee after being unable to pay a pair of $125 (£89) extortion payments.
The annual caravan usually consists of several hundred migrants, but its ranks swelled this year to more than 1,000 as large numbers of Hondurans joined – something organisers blame on political repression after the fraudulent November elections there.
Trump threatened to cut Honduras’ foreign aid if emigration continued, but Amador retorted: “If it [foreign aid] were working there wouldn’t be so many Hondurans coming here.”
Isabel Nerio Rodríguez, 52, also fled after extortion demands. She tried to open a bakery in El Salvador, but a gang demanded a $300 (£214) fee for starting operations and threatened to kill her grandson if she didn’t pay.
“The only thing we want is security for our children,” said Rodríguez, whose own daughter had been grabbed by gang-bangers and gang-raped after refusing to become their leader’s girlfriend.
“If our countries were safe, we wouldn’t leave,” she continued. “Who would want to leave and suffer like this?”