Migrant Caravans: A View from Ground Level

Screen Shot 2019-08-24 at 4.28.06 PM.pngby Margarita Núñez Chaim

This article is based on a talk given by at Cornell University on March 22 by Margarita Núñez Chaim, a Ph.D. student at the Centro de Investigaciones y Estudios Superiores en Antropología Social in Mexico City. The event, “On the Ground with the Migrant Caravans,” was sponsored by CUSLAR and the Latin American Studies Program. 


My presentation today speaks to realities and understandings I came to while traveling through Mexico for two months accompanying one of the migrant caravans. I will use the term “caravan” for simplicity, though it is not accurate to describe recent mass migration from Central America as caravans.

Last year, people would constantly say we were facing an exodus. Now, with the non-stop movement these first months of 2019, it is more accurate to name the phenomenon as a “massive migration” or as “mass flows of people,” or even as “collective migration.”

The “migrant caravan,” a more explicitly political tactic, actually emerged in Mexico in 2009 and 2010. Caravans were organized by human rights defenders and activists in Mexico alongside migrants in transit to the United States. The caravans were a combination of political protest demanding the respect of human rights for migrants in Mexico, and a way for migrants and allies to walk safely through some parts of the route. These political actions had the goal of documenting and making visible the realities migrants had to face in transit through Mexico at a time when violence against immigrants in Mexico reached outrageous levels.

Contrary to those actions organized in Mexico, what began last October erupted without centralized leadership or strong organization. Rather, it was very spontaneous. During the two months that I accompanied migrants on their journey, I constantly asked people how they decided to leave. Everyone I met answered that they had decided to join the caravan in a matter of a few hours, or at the most, a few days. The most recurrent answer was something like: “I was at my house listening to the news that morning, and I heard people were gathering at the bus station to leave, so I told my mom, ‘this is my chance,’ and I packed my bags and left by the afternoon”. So from what I heard, the individual decisions that drove people to join a caravan were quite spontaneous.

On the other hand, there were, and still are, processes that have been at work for decades, which continue to worsen living conditions of people in Central America. These processes are not spontaneous at all. We have known about increasing gang violence, street violence and state violence. We have known about deepening poverty and growing corruption in the Central American governments. And we have known the number of people fleeing their countries is rising. So we should have seen this phenomenon coming.

When I asked people in the caravan why they left home, they told me about poverty, lack of jobs, jobs that wouldn’t allow them to make ends meet, or violence, gang threats, gang extortions, or all of these reasons mixed together. For women, almost always, the answer also included gender violence from their partners, their families or the gangs. But this shouldn’t make us discard the political context as a reason for people to leave. The 2017 election in Honduras was a key factor, so it should be no surprise that this phenomenon started there, last year. Though it was not common to hear that the reason people left was “political,” that is, they didn’t leave because of government persecution, through everyday conversations it was very common to hear about the role of the Honduran government as part of the larger story.

Many would talk about how the 2017 election was a complete fraud, how people went to vote just to realize their vote had already been cast by someone else. Migrants would talk daily about corruption. At night, or standing in line for food, or when we were on the highway inside a trailer, every time people started talking with each other they would complain about their government.

Through these conversations, I began to understand that the political situation in Honduras had a direct impact in the living conditions that obligated people to leave. Specifically, I understood that the 2017 election was a breaking point where many Hondurans lost hope in the possibility of change.

Therefore, in the face of the worsening political, economic and social conditions in Central America –mainly Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala and – it is understandable that a message on social media or TV could be a catalyst to make people leave everything to try and go somewhere where they could find a better life, or simply an opportunity to keep on living. Thousands of people each month knew it was better to leave than to stay, even though they didn’t know exactly what they were going to face on the journey.

In the public narrative, it has been common to hear that migrants left without knowing the risks of the road, or with misinformation of what to expect. Of course most don’t have all the details about the asylum process or the route, or even the distances –it is very common that immigrants from Central America don’t know how enormous Mexico is. But they do know they might not make it. They know they can be detained and deported. They know they can be kidnapped in Mexico. They even know –and are very conscious about- the possibility of dying. This was demonstrated the day migrants ended up tear gassed by Border Patrol in Tijuana.

When I spoke with people after they were attacked, many of them told me that they would try to cross again. The fact that crossing that way was dangerous, to them, was not a valid reason not to try it. “We know some of us will not make it,” I heard repeatedly. “Some of us will be deported, and some of us might die. But if we try it together, some of us will make it, and that’s enough.” That day made it clear that migrants not only were very conscious about the risks they were facing, but also they were willing to take them. One man told me, “If some of us die at the border, at least we would die trying, and at least we would die here, because for us there just wasn’t any chance to keep on living in our countries. We were already dead there.”

These statements help us to understand the complexity of what is happening. It helps us to understand why 10,000 people could one day decide to leave their countries because of a message on social media, without any organization to speak of. These testimonies, full of both hope and desperation, help us to understand why the caravans appeared so apparently spontaneously, but at the same time how profoundly rooted this phenomenon is in the history, economics and politics of the region.

This also sheds a light in to understanding why there was a lot of misinformation in so many other ways around the caravan and amongst the migrants. Every day on the caravan one would hear rumors like, “Obama is going to be president again to let us enter the United States.” The relevance of this misinformation is that all the rumors were about the “possibilities” for them to get to the U.S. This reflects on the fact that getting to the U.S. is the last real hope for many of them to live a dignified life. So to hold on to that expectation, that last hope, is what keeps many people strong and makes them thrive through that journey. Crazy rumors will grow because people will hold onto anything that tells them they can make it.

The media, politicians and even activists tend to underestimate migrants, thinking they are “misinformed,” and in that sense these groups tend to be condescending. This condescension is a manifestation of racism and reveals the patriarchal way migrants are treated. At the end of the day, in spite of the fake news and rumors around them and amongst them, most migrants are quite conscious about their place on earth and the implications of what they are doing.

I previously mentioned that migrants said that if they tried to cross the border together, at least some of them might make it. This is key to understanding how the caravan became a movement in itself. All along the way from Central America to the U.S., we dealt with constant uncertainties, but the only two things that were certain for the people were: first, they were heading to the U.S., and second, they were going together. People knew that by travelling together they had a better chance to succeed, and this speaks to the strong solidarity ties developed along the way.

This new form of migration is a direct response to the violence migrants face on their journeys. Travelling together is a way to protect themselves. So the previous caravans organized in Mexico by human rights defenders did had an effect on the migrant population because they experienced that by travelling together the journey was easier and safer. Many migrants who participated in past caravans have participated since last October in these new flows as activists and human rights defenders. This in turn has encouraged other Central American migrants to engage in humanitarian aid and human rights activism.

During the last year’s walk, great leadership emerged among the migrants. This leadership responded to immediate circumstances along the way, to everyday necessities. For example, one day people thought someone was trying to kidnap a child. After that, migrants formed an internal security committee to take charge of night surveillance and to make sure every ride that people took was going to the next town, so no one would get lost on the way. When media started talking about the garbage that the caravan was leaving behind, the migrants formed a clean-up committee that organized volunteers in every place we stopped to pick up garbage. Like these, many committees formed along the way to resolve emergent circumstances.

Nonetheless, the continuously changing context of the transit would make leadership highly fragile. As a group of more than 7,000 of us walking together, it was impossible to organize or coordinate anything in a centralized manner. Many people would question the authority of the leaders, so anyone who would actively participate in some form of leadership would later cede their job to someone else. In this way, leadership was in constant flux. This is why, when media, politicians and even NGOs would ask, “Who is your leader?” people would answer, “We don’t have leaders, we came here by ourselves.” This is absolutely true. The organization was truly organic and also very anarchical.

This also meant that walking together, moving together, for many people was a process of empowerment in itself. This empowerment may not have been around a strongly articulated political demand, but it was a demand of the right to exist and to move across borders without seeking permission. It was an unapologetic claim for visibility and the respect of their dignity that challenged governments, borders, and even the human rights movement in Mexico. It was a chaotic but functional organization that emerged from thousands of people who decided to leave their countries because they were not willing to give up. They decided to fight for life, so they didn’t see themselves as victims of their circumstances. They came to see themselves not as mere recipients of humanitarian aid: they demanded respect and recognition.

Nowadays, the increasing criminalization and repression migrants are facing not only in the United States, but also in Mexico, and even in Central America, is a way to punish this process of empowerment: the social organization of migration around the unapologetic demand of the right to exist. It is now known that the U.S. and Mexican governments have a joint intelligence operation called “Operation Secure Line” that targets advocates, journalists, migrants and even preachers. Many of these people have begun to face government surveillance, harassment and even the denial of entry into Mexico.

This year in Mexico, Central American migrants have not stopped arriving in groups of 50 to 3,000 people. The response of the Mexican government has been to further criminalize migrants and human rights defenders. They are targeting advocates who are monitoring, accompanying and providing humanitarian aid to these mass migration flows. Government officials constantly threaten advocates by saying that helping immigrants is against the law – even though in Mexican immigration law, human rights activities and humanitarian aid are explicitly legal. And they are giving public declarations that defame advocates and compare them to criminal groups.

In addition, the Mexican government has begun to target migrants who take active roles in the journeys. In January and February alone, Mexican government illegally detained eight migrants who took on leadership roles in these flows; they deported five of them. The eight were detained while helping organize to receive humanitarian aid as water and food, or while organizing meetings with the groups they were travelling with so they could coordinate where to go next, or while helping people to get rides along the highway. None of them were proven to have committed a crime or even an administrative wrongdoing. They were immediately taken into the detention centers of Mexico’s National Migration Institute, which explicitly violates their right to due process. They were put in isolation cells, denied visitors, questioned about their activities and even physically abused. Even though some of them had legal status in Mexico, they were illegally deported.

This is evidence that the new collective migration flows are facing transnational repression and criminalization. Yet in spite of it all, people continue to migrate defiantly. Currently in Mexico [as of mid-March], we have knowledge of around 6,000 people located in many different places on their way to the U.S. They are en route or already at the border, and they are in groups from 50 to 2,000. In fact, in the southern state of Chiapas, a new group of about 3,000 people is starting their journey. This time, people from the Caribbean –mainly Cuba and Haiti- have joined the Central American migrants, because all administrative procedures were shut down as the Chiapas office of the National Migration Institute was closed because of corruption complaints.

Moving in large groups has become a new way to emigrate in the face of worsening living conditions in Central America, violence in Mexico, and transnational repression of migrants. Unless these circumstances are addressed, the mass flows won’t end any time soon. People continue to arrive in large groups every day to the Mexico-Guatemala border, and to the U.S.-Mexico border. In spite of all they are facing, migrants keep choosing not to give up. In spite of not knowing what exactly they will encounter through their journey, they believe it will be better than staying in their countries. Migrants are defying government threats and repression, arrests and deportations, and openly defying migration policies and borders. Not because of overtly political demands, but because they have no other choice.

One response to “Migrant Caravans: A View from Ground Level

  1. Pingback: Exodus and Central America | Committee on U.S./Latin American Relations·

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