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‘A river of people moving north’: sketches from the ‘migrant caravan’

Sketches from the people caravan, October 2018

 

‘This is an invasion of our Country and our Military is waiting for you!’
Donald Trump tweet, 29 October 2018

 

The ‘invasion’

They have taken over the pueblo (village) of Santiago Niltepec. An invasion of tired bodies, stretched out wherever they can find space: pavements, doorways, an abandoned house, a park, a church, a basketball court, the town plaza, a rotunda. All are occupied by sleeping migrants from Central America.

Some villagers open their houses to the people, offering toilet facilities and a floor to sleep on. Some people cook food for the hungry migrants. Others close the doors to their homes and their businesses.

‘Of course, we are scared,’ Virginia says.

She is a fifty-something woman who sits on her balcony staring with unconcealed distrust at the crowds of people who have occupied her town.

‘We are a small pueblo, we cannot help these people,’ she says. ‘We just want them to leave.’

The Exodus, as the caravan members call it, passes through the pueblas of southern Mexico with a need for resources that far outstrips the villages’ ability to provide. There are only a few aid agencies present. Volunteers from the Ministerios Nazarenos de Compasion, the Church of the Nazarene, offer basic medical treatment for blisters and dehydration. Under another marquee, this one erected by the Ombudsman for the Human Rights of the People of Oaxaca, migrants can call home for free.

The few portaloos which have been hired are overwhelmed by demand. Men mostly urinate in the streets. There are police present but they seem to be keeping the peace rather than dictating the caravan’s movements.

A shop owner, who speaks to me through the bars of her window, tells me the local government advised the businesses in the area to close for their own safety. That’s why when night falls all the shops and houses close as one, as if it is rehearsed. Because all the restaurants have closed the shop owner offers to cook dinner for me.

‘I am with five other people,’ I tell her.

She hesitates, looking suspiciously at the group of dusty Hondurans sitting on the kerb, and then nods curtly.

 

Finding the caravan

I was living in Mexico City when I heard that the migrant caravan had crossed the border from Guatemala into Mexico. More than 7,000 people according to the United Nations, mainly from Honduras, but also from El Salvador, Guatemala and Nicaragua, had formed what the media was calling a caravan to migrate north to the United States.

After following the news of the caravan’s passage through Mexico for a week, I flew to Tuxtla Gutierrez, capital of Chiapas – Mexico’s southernmost state – and hired a car. I wanted to see this phenomenon of human desperation for myself.

I stopped first at a peaceful town called Arriaga. The locals told me I’d just missed the caravan. They assured me there were no problems. At a gas station, a worker told me the people were ‘fascinating’. Perhaps these opinions were in hindsight, formed by townspeople who could see the back of the migrants. If the migrants were to remain, would the locals feel the same way? Then again, perhaps the townsfolk of Arriaga were used to strangers.

The freight trains known as ‘La Bestia,’ or the beast, stop in Arriaga. As many as half a million Central American immigrants board these freight trains annually on their journey to the United States. La Bestia is the cheapest but most dangerous option north to the border. Simultaneously a symbol of liberty and death. There are no passenger railcars to ride. Instead the migrants usually ride atop the moving trains, risking a violent demise for the chance to reach the US.

The trail led me out of Chiapas and into the state of Oaxaca. I passed lush green orchards and the sierras of the Sepultura Biosphere Reserve. On the other side of those mountains was San Cristobal de Las Casas. This was tourist country for gringos. I eventually reached the small town of Santiago Niltepec.

 

The Hondurans

Antonio and Vincent are the first members of the Exodus I meet. Antonio is a short 27-year-old, with a chin strap beard. He has a friendly face and calls himself ‘gordito’, which is an affectionate way of saying little fatty.

Vincent is a lean 30-year-old with wrinkles at the corners of his eyes. His hair is cut like mine, short on the sides and combed to one side on top. He has a large tattoo on his right forearm that reads, ‘Andrea’. Vincent invites me to join their group of six.

The group have made camp underneath a tree, next to an abandoned car, on the broken and uneven pavement in front of an orange and green painted casa.

Vincent sits next to his wife Eva and their curly haired pudding of a daughter, Madeline. Eva is eighteen years old and quiet. Her attention is reserved for Madeline, who spends most of her time feeding and sleeping. Madeline had her first birthday six days ago.

Antonio puts his arm around his wife, Tina, and kisses her affectionately. Tina is thirty-two. Her two children from a past relationship are not with the caravan.

They are travelling light. They don’t even have bottles of water or food. Their clothes are covered in dirt, their faces sag from exhaustion. They look like the poor migrants that have been broadcast all over the American news.

They are all from Honduras, a small country where drugs, criminal gangs, poverty, drought and corruption are rife. Pedro and Vincent are farmers, Antonio is an electrician. None of them can find work, but there are other, more pressing reasons why they have left their country.

In Honduras, about two-thirds of people live in poverty. Since 2010, Honduras has had one of the highest murder rates in the world. According to the UN, roughly 15% of US-bound cocaine lands in Honduras and this fuels crime-related violence. What makes all of it worse is the police corruption, as police often work with criminal syndicates.

The term ‘migrant’ is an inadequate representation of these people’s stories.

‘We can’t live in Honduras. It is an ugly country,’ Antonio tells me. ‘The young people live in a horrible psychological system where they never know when they could be killed. We want to go to the land of opportunity and law.’

The men were unacquainted before joining the caravan but have become friends since. The twenty-four-year-old Pedro believes it is harder to travel alone as he doesn’t have anyone to watch out for him. The group tells me that they fears thieves and drunks. They have to be especially vigilant at night.

‘Not everyone in the caravan is a good person, just like not everyone in the United States is a good person,’ Pedro says.

He tells me that he prefers to travel within their group because it is safer, but there were clearly other benefits to travelling together. Tina, Antonio and Pedro help look after Madeline, who is the centre of attention. Pedro is affectionate with the gurgling infant, bouncing her on his knee and whispering in her ear. There is a sense of community and solidarity among the six.

There are similar benefits to migrating in the caravan. Travelling in large numbers offers protection from gangs and cartels who target migrants. The caravan also provides safety from Mexican immigration – because it’s much easier to arrest and deport solo travellers.

Each member of the group has tried to immigrate to the US before, even Madeline. But they think they will have more luck with the caravan.

The lame duck Peña Nieto administration in Mexico is caught between a chest-thumping Trump, threatening to cut off trade if action is not taken against the caravan, and the incoming government of Andrés Manuel López Obrador, who successfully campaigned on a gentler approach to Central American migration.

The caravan was halted by Mexican riot police at the border momentarily, before some members of the caravan resorted to crossing the river in rafts. Since then, the caravan has protected members from Mexican authorities. (Tragically, when another caravan clashed with police forces on the Mexico-Guatemala border, 26-year-old Honduran Henry Diaz was killed after being shot in the head with a rubber bullet.

The Peña Nieto administration’s solution was to offer those travelling with the caravan temporary work visas, health benefits and the opportunity to enrol their children in school in the southern states of Oaxaca and Chiapas. Chiapas and Oaxaca also happen to be the two poorest states in Mexico. For people fleeing poverty, unemployment and violence, Mexico is not the answer.

The group tells me that a pregnant woman and her unborn child died the other day because of sickness and heat. This has everyone worried for Madeline who started vomiting from a stomach bug a few days ago.

While we speak, an old man leaning in the doorway of the home behind us listens. He has offered the Hondurans hammocks and sleeping mats for the night in his house.

‘They are searching for the American dream,’ he tells me, conveying a sense of pity for the group.

I ask if I can also stay in his house. It’s a small pueblo with only one hotel, which is already fully booked. I think he finds my request amusing but he offers me a hammock nonetheless.

 

Hysteria

Judging by the media attention in the United States, it would be easy to assume this migration was a unique phenomenon. But this wasn’t the first such caravan to pass through Mexico.

For the past several years, Mexican advocacy groups have held an annual caravan of Central American migrants. One set out in April 2018: a caravan of 1,500 people, which dwindled to a few hundred by the time it reached the US-Mexico border. The October caravan was different because of its size and the fact that it was travelling at a politically significant time.

In the lead-up to the midterm elections, President Trump ramped up his already virulent anti-migrant rhetoric. His attempts to whip up hysteria included baseless accusations that there were ‘criminals and unknown Middle Easterners’ in the caravan. He even claimed that Democrats were ‘ openly encouraging caravan after caravan of illegal aliens to violate our laws and break into our country’.

These claims were followed up by an announcement from the Department of Defense and Department of Homeland Security that they would deploy 5,200 additional troops to the border to join the thousands of Customs and Border Protection officials, joining the 2,100 National Guard personnel already there. Trump went so far as to suggest that the US may deploy as many as 15,000 troops to the border to meet the families of the Exodus – more troops than are serving in Iraq and Syria.

Blaming ‘migrants’ for fleeing poverty and violence is a simple response to a complex problem. A better way to stem the future flow of people might be to re-examine US foreign policy in Central America. Ongoing US intervention in El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala, has destabilised and militarised the region, leading to an increase in migration to the US.

While Trump deliberately provokes racial tension, there were at least two frightening incidents of domestic terrorism in the US. Pipe bombs were mailed to Democratic Party leaders and eleven, elderly Jews were murdered in a Reform synagogue in Pittsburgh. It would appear US citizens have more to fear from their fellow citizens than from the members of the caravan.

Moreover, given the reports of American citizens acting as vigilante border patrols, perhaps the migrants are the ones who should be afraid of Americans.

 

Dawn departure

I arrange dinner with the lady behind the barred windows. She cooks us eggs and, despite her initial distrust, offers us potato chips and refrescos free of charge.

That evening, music plays in the streets and people mill about. Groups of teenagers loiter and flirt with each other, which makes me think of a summer vacation on the coast. Despite the seriousness of the situation the people appear upbeat, even optimistic. They are in charge of their own fate, for the time being at least.

Nevertheless, people are clearly tired. One woman from Guatemala shows me the red-raw blisters on her feet. The caravan has already travelled close to 1,000 kilometres since it set out from the city of San Pedro Sula in Honduras on 12 October, and they still have a long way to go to reach the US border.

We are leaving at 3am the next morning, an early rise to avoid the heat of the day. My compañeros fall asleep immediately. I am kept awake by the sound of barking dogs, the infuriating buzz and bites of mosquitoes, the coughing of other travellers, the flashing lights of police patrols, swirling winds and a swinging hammock.

I leave my hammock long before the hustle and bustle of the morning pack-up begins. American reporters are already pointing their cameras and bright lights in the faces of sleeping children. According to Antonio, the local community and civil society groups organised buses to transport women and children on to the next destination. Long lines form to board the buses, but not everyone can fit. There are arguments about who can board, illuminated by the bright lights of American cameramen. A mise-en-scène of conflict and desperation to broadcast across the United States.

Those not fortunate enough to board buses head to the highway with their meagre possessions in hand.

People congregate again at a highway petrol station just outside town where they can approach trucks heading west and ask permission to board. If the truckie says yes, they climb on top of the tanker, in between the tanker tray and the cabin, hanging on to the back, wherever they can get a firm hold.

It is usually the adventurous young men who follow this method, willing to risk their lives for any kind of assistance on the long journey. They catch rides from whomever they can, even farmers with tractors. The unfortunate many who can’t get lifts begin the slow march on foot, pushing prams, carrying children and luggage. Today the caravan is headed for the town of Juchitan de Zaragoza: 53 kilometres away; one hour by car. I don’t know how long it will take to walk that distance.

I thought there would be more cohesion to the caravan. Perhaps I imagined them to march as one, singing solidarity songs like an anti-war protest. What I witness is much more chaotic. In some ways, it’s every person for themselves. The members of the caravan are united by a singular goal: to reach America. Nothing more than that.

The caravan passes reddish-brown corn fields, little haciendas and rancheros, jimadores cutting agave plants. It’s a picturesque setting for a mass migration. For those people shouldering backpacks, striding towards wind turbine farms, the searing sun beats down on their bare heads. The wind drags them this way and that. The elements drain them of energy.

 

Vincent’s story

The previous evening Vincent refrained from telling me his story in front of the others. We eventually find a quiet moment alone. He drags heavily on a lit cigarette and then shares his story.

‘I’m a man who has suffered since I was a kid. When I was two years old, a man raped my mother, then he killed her and threw her body in a river.’

Not long after his mother died, his grandmother died of cancer and his father became a deeply depressed alcoholic. Vincent was raised by his grandfather, and occasionally his father’s sister.

‘I was 17 when I fell in love,’ Vincent says.

He married a young woman from his neighbourhood and his grandpa gave them a little land on which he built a champita, a small wooden house. He called his first daughter, Andrea, which explained the tattoo on his forearm.

‘After her, Juan was born, and then a third child. This is how it happens in poverty. You get a lot of children very quickly,’ Vincent observes.

Around that time, Vincent’s dead mother’s family returned to his life. They questioned him about his future, his plans and his poverty. They suggested he move to the USA and join up with their family members in New York.

‘We cannot go alone to the border,’ Vincent tells me. ‘You have to pay a coyote [a people smuggler]. It is mafia, but it is the best way to avoid getting kidnapped by the cartels. When that happens they treat you very bad. If your family doesn’t give them money, they can kill you.’

Vincent tells me that to enter the US with a coyote costs US$4,000. In 2012, his mother’s family helped arrange his illegal travel through Mexico and into the United States.

He found it difficult to settle in America. He found it a closed society, at times racist, and he couldn’t learn English, although he tried. He missed his family, especially his baby who had only been just born.

‘I wasn’t used to being alone. I used to cry every night.’

He found work in construction and was able to send money home to his family. But after eighteen months, his wife fell in love with another man. She started taking drugs and associating with unsavoury folk, and eventually became an addict. When Vincent found about the affair, he arranged for his aunt in Honduras to take care of the children while he continued to send money home. One day, she tried to take the children from Vincent’s aunt, but his aunt sent her away.

‘She went back to my aunt’s house that night with two men. They shot and killed my aunt,’ Vincent tells me. ‘Someone contacted me to tell me what had happened. I couldn’t believe it, I fell into a depression. I couldn’t believe that the mother of my children could kill my aunt. She threatened my family and myself. My plans were shattered.’

In 2016, after almost five years in the United States, Vincent returned home to see his grandpa before he died. The mother of his children had been sentenced to 20 years prison, but his children were with the family of his ex-wife.

‘The family didn’t tell the children what had happened, but at some point they will learn the truth,’ he says.

In his hometown of Santa Cruz de Yojoa, there are mountains and waterfalls, rivers and lakes. But there are no jobs and there is a lot of violence. Like his father before him, Vincent became depressed. He sold the house he was building, started drinking and spent all of his money.

He tried to re-enter the United States in 2017, with neither a caravan nor a coyote. When he arrived at the town of Reynosa, Mexico, he was caught by immigration without papers and was returned to Honduras.

On another attempt, he managed to enter the US at Reynosa with the help of a coyote. He jumped the border wall and crossed the Rio Grande in a little inflatable boat. The coyote hid the group of 54 people in a warehouse for five days, but immigration officers found them and arrested them all. Vincent was detained for three weeks and then deported back to Honduras.

He moved to San Pedro Sula for work; that was where he met Eva and they had Madeline. But Vincent was aware that their lives were in danger.

‘My ex-wife has threatened to kill me. She has said that she is going to send people to do so. That is why I decided to come here.’

The challenge for Vincent is the cost of coyotes. A special trip designed for those with children costs between US$7,000 and $10,000. That’s why Vincent thinks the caravan is a good opportunity to reach the US safely.

‘The caravan is protected. If we arrive together, we are safe. We want to ask the American government to take us as refugees,’ he explains. ‘We want a dialogue.’

The most tragic part of Vincent’s story is that it is not unique. This migrant caravan is full of stories just like his.

 

Arriving in Juchita

The Hondurans and I arrive in Juchita ahead of the caravan and I realise just how little is planned. The caravan leaves at a certain time each day and stops at a certain place. Otherwise, the people are free to do as they please. Without money, and being foreigners in a strange land, the Hondurans have nowhere to go and nothing to do.

‘We will wait for the caravan,’ Antonio says.

Walk and wait, wait and walk. They only have one purpose on this trip and it’s to reach the United States. Their life, for the time being, centres on migration.

When they sit on the side of the road, people stare openly at the dirt smears on their clothes and shoes; at their tired faces and their small bags attached to their backs. There is exhaustion in the Hondurans’ stance, but also indifference. They don’t care what these people think, as long as they reach the land of opportunity.

In the next town of Ixtepec there is a free guest house for migrants. It allows them a chance to wash, eat, rest. There are trees and shade. Its peaceful atmosphere is a welcome break from the long road and harsh climate. I am exhausted and I’ve only been with the caravan for one night.

When the Hondurans are washed, with clean hair and clean clothes, they could be mistaken for different people.

‘Do you guys want to go for a swim?’ I ask.

They look up at me, surprised.

‘I love water,’ Tina says.

We drive a bumpy, dirt road towards the heart of Oaxaca. We pass through an alley of trees and enter an oasis of natural, freshwater pools called Agua de Ojos. Antonio the gordito is first in the water, recklessly diving head first into a shallow pool.

‘It’s beautiful,’ he shouts to the rest of the group.

Suddenly, they’re all in the water and I’m left holding Madeline. They pose for photos with big smiles. Antonio belly flops into the water from Vincent’s shoulders which makes everyone laugh.

When we leave the pools later that day, I overhear Eva murmur to Vincent: ‘We had fun, for a short time, at least.’

 

The route north

That evening we learn that the caravan has decided on a significant change of route. Instead of travelling through Oaxaca to Mexico City by bus, the caravan will continue on foot towards Veracruz, a state with a high risk of violence at the hands of organised crime.

Members of the caravan tell me that Mexican civil society groups had arranged for buses to transport women and children to Oaxaca City; however, after pressure from the federal government of Mexico, the offers were withdrawn. Without the buses, the members of the caravan are concerned about the lack of access to medical services on the remote, mountainous route to the city of Oaxaca.

With this in mind, the Hondurans decide to split from the caravan. They believe the route to Veracruz is too dangerous. They are fearful of Los Zetas and the other drug cartels that operate in the Gulf region and target vulnerable migrants.

They will pay for bus tickets to Oaxaca City. It’s a safer route, but more expensive and will stretch their tight budget. From there they will go to Mexico City, then San Luis Potosi followed by the border. They may have to stop along the way to earn more money. Perhaps they will join up with the caravan at a future date.

(It later emerges that 100 members of the caravan, including women and children, went missing in the state of Puebla. Human rights activists and officials in the southern states of Oaxaca and Veracruz claim the migrants were kidnapped and handed over to Los Zetas.)

Although their future is uncertain, the migrants’ optimism remains. Their hope for a better life sustains them on the difficult journey ahead. They are not naïve to the reality of the ‘American dream’; Vincent has lived that hardship. But none of them want to return to the dangers of Honduras.

‘I want a better future for my children because until now I have had nothing to offer to them,’ Vincent tells me. ‘All I want is to work hard so I can provide for my children.’

 

Image: ‘Honduran refugee caravan’ / Flickr

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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Mark Isaacs is a writer, researcher and community worker. His first book, The Undesirables: Inside Nauru (Hardie Grant, 2014), is an account of his work with asylum seekers in Nauru, one of Australia’s notorious offshore detention centres. His second book, Nauru Burning (Editia, 2016), follows up with an investigative report on human rights abuses on Nauru. Mark is president of Sydney PEN and a PhD candidate focusing on irregular migration at the University of Technology Sydney. He has published articles with The Guardian, Foreign Policy, Sydney Morning Herald, New Internationalist, Griffith Review and many others. markjisaacs.com

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Comments

  1. Warm and intimate story Mark. This is the kind of storytelling that reminds those of us snug in our houses with tea in the stove that life is not so predictable everywhere and that the vilification of vulnerable people is evil and craven. Great work.

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