‘We can’t stay where we were.. Everything is crazy there’
- Credit: Will Worley
They have been maligned by Donald Trump and have the might of the US military awaiting them. But the migrant caravan plods on. Will Worley caught up with it in Cordoba, Mexico.
Throughout the day, people of the so-called 'migrant caravan' making its way north through the country come, having hitched rides or walked from their last stop downstate. They make their beds wherever they can find them – on their meagre rugs on the hard floor, and in between the spectator chairs overlooking the gym that was home for the night.
The conditions in the caravan are tough – particularly for women and children – and they face a hostile reception in their hoped-for final destination, the USA. But those who have opted to make the journey say they have had little choice to escape poverty, crime and political repression in Central America's violent northern triangle of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador.
Ana Patricia Zoniga is travelling with her husband, Jorge, and their three-year-old daughter from their hometown, the Honduran city of San Pedro Sula – described as the most violent in the world – from where the caravan departed on October 12. It swelled to around 7,000 people at its peak but its numbers have been fluid, with some migrants leaving as it creeps further into Mexico.
Making the arduous journey is not any better than being at home, says Zoniga, who is barely out of her teens, but she believes the end result will be. 'I want to go to the USA,' she says. 'In Honduras it's very complicated.'
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Her daughter, Valery Jackeline Reyes, has been sick and coughing blood but Zoniga says she is making the trip for her. 'I want a future for my daughter,' she says while giving her medicine. 'The conditions in Honduras are no good for her either.'
Her husband, Jorge, 21, worked occasionally as a driver in San Pedro Sula, but like most of the other migrants, was unable to secure steady employment at home. He decided to leave with his family after facing death threats from gangsters, and refusing to join them and sell drugs.
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'Many people here have similar stories,' he says.
This migrant caravan – and those which have followed further behind – has caused an unprecedented reaction in the US. During the fierce campaigning for the mid-term elections, Donald Trump branded the migrants an 'invasion' and ordered an armed response. 'Many gang members and some very bad people are mixed into the caravan heading to our southern border,' he tweeted. 'This is an invasion of our country and our military is waiting for you!'
Operation Faithful Patriot was enacted to send thousands of soldiers to the US' southern border with Mexico – even while the closest migrants in the caravan were many hundreds of miles away. Unregulated militia groups were also reported to be organising at some areas of the border region.
At one point, Trump suggested that migrants from the caravan – of the few expected to make it to the US border – would be shot if they threw rocks, but later backtracked.
'We are scared [of Trump and the US Army],' says Marco Barrientos, gesturing at the young families surrounding him on the gym floor. Toddlers playing nearby in blissful ignorance briefly prompt him to smile. 'The kids are happy, they don't care,' he says. 'Look how many mothers and children there are here.'
Barrientos, 49, has been travelling north with his wife and relatives since the caravan left San Pedro Sula, and formed a group with Ana and Jorge Zoniga on the way. He was also unable to find work at home, and is sick of the gangs and corrupt politics that ravage his country.
'All these people want is to make money for their kids. They are hungry, thirsty, and need school,' he adds.
Those on the caravan represent only a fraction of the total numbers of migrants who head from Central America to the US. Most make the journey north in much smaller groups or individually. Caravans like this are not a new phenomenon, though this is the largest in recent memory. Experts say that such a big group walking together across borders so brashly hasn't been seen before. This is certainly the first time a caravan has captured political attention in the US to such a degree – though that may be as much to do with the timings of the American mid-term elections and the president's opportunism.
The caravan's size is a response to the dangers often faced on the perilous trail. Migrants travelling through Mexico – a country where criminal cartels hold significant power – are highly vulnerable.
Veracruz state, through which the migrants passed at the weekend, was referred to as 'the largest grave in Mexico' for migrants by caravan organisers. The area is a stronghold of the Los Zetas cartel.
And despite the migrants' poverty, kidnapping them is a big business in Mexico, and untold numbers have disappeared and been killed trying to emigrate over the years. Indeed, earlier this week there were reports that around 100 migrants had gone missing from the caravan as it passed through Veracruz, with fears they could have been kidnapped by the Los Zetas group.
Migrants of the caravan have walked and hitched rides along a highway running along Mexico's Pacific south, through the green mountains of the impoverished Oaxaca and Chiapas states. On reaching the town of Juchitan de Zaragoza, it branched northwards towards, entering Veracruz. 'It's a dangerous journey,' says Barrientos. 'Some people have died already. People say Veracruz is most dangerous, maybe it is, may it isn't. Chiapas felt most dangerous to me. But still, we gotta go.'
Organisers believe there is safety in numbers and travelling in groups allows migrants to look out for each other. It also means the group can avoid paying extortionate fees to 'coyotes' – people smugglers who guide migrants to the US – and can more easily avoid harassment by the authorities. There are allegations that some elements of Mexican law enforcement are in thrall to the cartels which control routes often used by smaller groups of migrants.
Together, in the caravan, the migrants say they feel safer from dangers of the road. The huge amount of attention generated by the movement has brought with it scrutiny on the Mexican government, and police have provided security, some of the migrants say.
Conditions on the route have been miserable though, as the migrants they or hitch rides in scorching heat or pouring rain. Health workers have reported numerous cases of stomach and throat infections, flu, skin and leg problems.
'Walking, always walking… It's a psychological challenge too,' says Orlin Leonel, who sits with his friends in a spectator stand in the gym. 'Tonight we will rest and relax before moving on tomorrow.'
But the migrants are willing to face the trials of the journey because of the dire situation in their home countries. Most are from Honduras and three main reasons are cited for leaving: violence, bleak economic prospects and political repression. The northern triangle are among the most dangerous countries in the world which are not actually at war.
Marco Gomez, a bus driver from Guatemala City, is leaving to claim asylum in the US with his family because of an attempt on his life, the attempted kidnapping of his wife and the vulnerability of his son to gang recruitment. 'There is no life in Guatemala,' he says, 'we just want to work in the USA.'
Old neighbourhood friends from San Pedro Sula, Jorge España and Jesus Hernandez, left because 'the whole country is dangerous'. They worried about the taxes imposed by gangs: 'If you can't pay, you will be killed.'
Luciano Torres is more blunt. 'I can't stay in Honduras,' he says. 'Everyone is crazy there.'
The country has also deteriorated politically in recent years, with president Juan Orlando Hernández accused of having rigged an election and launching a brutal clamp down on opposition groups which left dozens dead earlier this year. Juan Carlos, a 39-year-old democracy activist and former teacher, left because he had 'problems with the government' and asks not to be photographed for security reasons. 'There's nothing there,' he adds.
Such are their trials at home, many are highly impressed by the welcomes they have received in Mexico. Throughout their journey, they have been greeted by communities who have provided them with food, water and basic supplies.
In Cordoba, dozens of volunteers descended on the sports hall to help the new arrivals. They had all given up their Sunday with enthusiasm, and provided hot meals and drinks to the migrants. Medicines were given out for free, under the watchful eye of local health workers, and children were entertained in a play area.
Clothing donations proved particularly popular. Run with matron-like efficiency by Marya Garcia, from Cordoba, migrants rummaged through and tried on the new items, which were frequently dropped off in wrapped in plastic bags by other volunteers. 'People are bringing the clothes from the town and the migrants find what they need,' Garcia said. 'We're doing it out of solidarity for humanity.' A similar ethic was found across all those who were scooping rice, sorting old shoes, or cutting up soap.
As the afternoon became the evening, the children calmed down in front of an animated film shown on a large screen, and people began to slumber off on the floor. There is no privacy in the caravan, but the migrants know they need their rest. Tomorrow they set off at 5am, to do it all again. Next stop, Mexico City. Where they will finish, who knows?