In late 2018 thousands of people from across Central America walked North to the border of the USA and into the political maelstrom of the midterm elections. How did they organise themselves and what did they achieve?
Or use a Podcast app with our RSS feed. Broadcast 11 June 2019 as part of our third series.
Our reporter and writer for this episode is Mark Isaacs. He is a writer, an author, a researcher and a community worker. He tells stories of conflict and displacement, assisting the oppressed, the persecuted and the marginalised to tell their stories. 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 latest book, the Kabul Peace House, is about a community of peace activists in Afghanistan. You can catch him via his website, on twitter, facebook, or instagram.
Full transcript of Episode 19 – Migrant Caravan in Central America
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: At this very moment, large, well-organised caravans of migrants are marching toward our southern border. Some people call it an invasion. It’s like an invasion. And we’ve already dispatched for the border the United States military. And they will do the job.
HOST: That was President Donald Trump, addressing the press in October 2018. At the time, thousands of migrants, refugees and asylum seekers from Honduras, Nicaragua, Guatemala and El Salvador, had joined together in a caravan, travelling more than 4,000 kilometres to the US border.
Today on Changemakers, our story travels from Central America to North America to explore how seven thousand people created a unique, constantly-evolving organisation that defied the US President. Like millions before them, they were fleeing their homes because of violence and poverty, but this time they were doing it together. What did they learn, and what can we learn from their solidarity? Let’s go.
HOST: I’m Amanda Tattersall, welcome to Changemakers, the podcast telling stories about people changing the world. We are supported by the Sydney Policy Lab at the University of Sydney. They break down barriers between researchers, policy makers and community campaigners so we can build change together. Check them out at sydney.edu.au/policy-lab.
And you can sign up to our email list at changemakerspodcast.org.
The interviews in today’s episode were undertaken in late 2018 in Mexico by our reporter Mark Isaacs, who also wrote this episode. In reporting this story we will only use the first names of the caravan members to protect their identity.
ANTONIO: In Honduras, when we see a patrol, we do not know whether to run or to hide because we don’t know if they are the police or the death squad.
HOST: That’s Antonio, a 27-year-old Honduran. He, like thousands of others, joined the Migrant Caravan in 2018. He had good reason to flee. He lived in constant fear for his life.
Central America isn’t exactly the most stable place in the world. Decades of political interference by the United States – has taken its toll. Many of the Central American countries have endured civil war, and most suffer widespread poverty and violence. Erik is from neighbouring El Salvador.
ERIK: My country is in chaos at the moment. It’s ruled by gangs. My eldest son was 21 years old when the gangs killed him. His death was worse than how animals are killed.
HOST: What would you do if you were in that situation? I know what I’d do. I’d probably do what hundreds of thousands of Central Americans do every year – and have done for decades.
ANDRES: And for Central Americans, probably after the 1950s when the US started invading those countries and imposing dictatorships in those countries, a lot of people started fleeing from those countries, seeking asylum in the US or in Mexico, or just looking for better opportunities, or a job. HOST: It’s not the safest thing to do.
ANDRES: They can have accidents while hopping onto “the Beast” which is the train that crosses Mexico. Nasty accidents, like losing a limb, or even dying. They have confrontations with the cartels, with the police, heat-stroke, diseases.
Men, men migrants are used in labour camps to produce cocaine, heroin, weed, whatever the cartels are doing. The younger ones can be recruited to the cartels to be part of their hitmen.
Women are forced into prostitution. Kids are forced into prostitution, pornography, traffic organs. All those awful, awful things happen in Mexico.
HOST: This dangerous journey is made all the more risky because Mexican and American governments also work to stymie migration flows.
In 2014 under Obama, the US began funding Mexico’s Southern Border Plan to control and limit northerly migration through Mexico. The Mexican government stationed police and soldiers at the Guatemalan border. Since then Mexico has deported more than half a million Central Americans, including almost 82,000 in 2018.
Yet despite all these risks, migrants and refugees continue to attempt the journey.
In fact, a whole industry of people smugglers has popped up to make money out of taking refugees through Mexico. They are called “coyotes”.
VINCENT: We cannot go alone to the border, because there the narcos are in charge… Before you arrive at the border you have to contact a coyote. They charge you. It is a mafia but it is a good way to avoid getting kidnapped.
HOST: That was Vincent. Tina is another migrant who used a coyote to try and cross the border with her children.
TINA: It took four days and they put us in a place, like a cellar. Oh it was horrible because there were more than 100 people and the cellar was small. The heat was unimaginable. There was only one bathroom for all those people.
HOST: Tina and her children were caught by Mexican immigration officers and placed in detention.
TINA: We were there for a month. In that place, one month and 6 days. It was awful because I have claustrophobia (laughs). There were heaps of people, mountains of people in there. My children said that they never in their lives want to experience that again. And I understand their reasons. Because they are kids who don’t like to be locked up.
HOST: The point is: everyone knows that fleeing to the US comes with incredible risk. But for many it’s also their only hope of any sort of life.
The real problem was doing it alone. It often meant ending up in the organised crime syndicates in Mexico.
HOST: It’s one thing to know that you can’t do something alone, but it’s another entirely to organise a powerful, functional, group of people to do it together.
The caravan in 2018, like in so many social movements, was born of an existential crisis. Out of that crisis, an organisation eventually congealed. But it didn’t start as an organisation. In fact, to many participants it didn’t feel planned at all.
Elena Alderman is a human rights defender, who ended up travelling with the caravan.
ELENA: The folks that left Honduras weren’t necessarily gathering because they had a similar end goal. They left because they couldn’t stand the collection of injustices they were experiencing which includes rampant human rights violations by the state, incredible levels of gang violence, and the corruption from Juan Orlando, the president of Honduras.
HOST: There wasn’t some kind of charismatic figure leading the caravan. Neni Martinez, a volunteer, says it was far more spontaneous than that.
NENI MARTINEZ: The caravan started to exist because of the injustices of our government. It was published on Facebook, Whatsapp, Twitter. People saw an opportunity to escape the injustice that our government is causing us. People did not think 24 hours or 12 hours or an hour to go out. I thought about it 10 minutes to leave my country. There are no leaders, there are only guides. They follow a green vest, follow an orange vest, follow a national flag and there it goes.
HOST: A lack of obvious leadership was, in some ways, a necessity. Leaders could be arrested, corrupted, or killed.
Of course, the simple existence of injustice doesn’t explain how a powerful social movement begins. Social change is rarely that spontaneous. So what happened here?
Weeks before the caravan formed, there were some small groups in Honduras preparing to leave. But instead of braving the journey individually, this time, they decided to do it together – for their own protection.
Immediately, news of this emergent caravan spread. First by word of mouth and news reports. But it was social media where the idea really caught on fire. Bartolo Fuentes, an independent Honduran journalist and former lawmaker, was one of many voices who used Facebook in September 2018 to call upon the people of Honduras to organise.
BARTOLO FUENTES: Go out screaming to the world that you are leaving because you have been robbed of opportunities and because those who should protect you have become threats to your lives.
HOST: Fuentes uploaded an image on his public Facebook account advertising that “the migrant walk” would commence from the grand terminal of San Pedro Sula in Honduras at 8am on 12 October. This image was shared 245 times. Because of this, some suggested Fuentes organised the caravan, a claim Fuentes refutes. He argues he wasn’t the organiser – violence and poverty made the caravan possible.
BARTOLO FUENTES:They are looking for scapegoats because the government does not want to recognise that here we have a terrible human tragedy that people can no longer bare, that a mother and a father with their children who have no work, who do not have food, that they are leaving their house because they cannot pay rent, because they are elsewhere looking for opportunities.
HOST: Fuentes didn’t create the caravan but nor did injustice alone.
A mix of a toxic politics, nascent social connections, trusted messengers and a dash of social media all played a role.
When the caravan left the city of San Pedro Sula, about 160 people joined the walk. It looked unremarkable.
But there was something powerful in the propaganda of the deed. The caravan was a walking symbol that offered people the opportunity to escape by creating the possibility of safe travel.
And so the 160 or so people started walking their way north. As they did, their group started to grow.
In region after region, people joined the small group. People from Honduras, then El Salvador and Nicaragua. By the time they arrived in Guatemala, their group numbered more than 3,000. It was no longer a small symbol of hope. It was something altogether different.
HOST: Up until Guatemala, there was no formal organisational structure. But its size, shape and the way in which the caravan was moving was completely different to when it had begun just weeks before.
It became clear they needed a means to make decisions, a way to organise themselves. It was in Guatemala where the Caravan Assembly was born. Human rights defender, Andres Torres Checka, explains.
ANDRES: The way the assemblies work is that every day, between 6-8pm migrants from the caravan get together and they talk about what are the possible next scenarios to take. Where to walk and what time to wake up to walk. They have the discussion. It’s an open mic. Any migrant can participate in these assemblies. And at the end of the day migrants vote what route to take and at what time to wake up.
HOST: The Assembly created a process for mass decision making – whether they were deciding where to walk or how to feed themselves.
This idea is not new. It looks and sounds like participatory democracy. Greek style. Except unlike in Ancient Greece this polis included women and the landless.
The caravan needed a space like the Assembly. It was made up of people from multiple countries, different kinds of families. And no one really knew each other.
The Assembly helped this highly diverse group work out the practical questions of how to live together, while they slowly moved towards their hopes for a better life.
The caravan used its diversity to help it organise. Committees were made up of representatives from the different cities and regions in Central America that were recruited along the way.
WALTER: A committee was formed that was named by the assembly… From each department they named a representative. In my case they named me as the representative from Tegucigalpa.
HOST: Walter Cuello was a taxi driver in Tegucigalpa, the capital city of Honduras. He fled threats from MS-13 gangs members who killed one of his colleagues, leaving behind his wife and two children.
WALTER: In Guatemala it was formed in Equipula. That’s where the committee was formed. Groups of people were formed to direct us. Each person was in charge of each group or department, to do the cleaning up, form a security committee and to engage in dialogue. When there was something to discuss, us as representatives would take decisions to the assembly. In the end what the assembly says is what is done.
HOST: The committee structure provided the caravan with an operational process. It was a dash of representative democracy in what was a highly participatory system.
The coordinators were responsible for negotiating with local governments and non-government organisations, managing transport and accommodation, medical care and food. They arranged for volunteers from within the caravan to help guide people to each destination, arranged rides on trucks, and ensured nobody was left behind.
There might not have been one leader in charge – but there was no lack of leadership – the Assembly was full of leaders.
ELENA: It’s like developing a government basically with representatives from each state.
HOST:Eventually, the migrants arrived at the Suchiate River, which divides Mexico and Guatemala. Knowing the caravan was approaching, Mexican police arranged their own arrival party. They closed the border, and then, for added effect, fired tear gas at the migrants.
HOST: The caravan might have established a radical form of internal governance – but they were going to need more help from here on in.
HOST: One source of inspiration for the 2018 caravan came from previous caravans of migrants who had traveled north together from inside Mexico.
Jirineo Mojica is a human rights defender in Mexico and helped organise the first caravan of migrants.
JIRINEO: The Ways of the Cross movement started many years ago in Ariaga. I believe that was the first Way of the Cross mobilisation where we took out the cross and walked around the town as a way to show what was happening and from that, we organised another one, further, to Juchitan. And then, one to the border. This movement grew slowly as a way to make visible the situation of the migrant.
HOST: Right from the start, the caravans have employed Christian symbols and practices. These icons gave the caravans a transcendent quality. Not only that, many of the migrants like Neni were devout Christians, often using Biblical language and seeing their struggle in religious terms.
NENI MARTINEZ: The leader of us is the Holy Spirit, it is God.
HOST: These processions started during Lent as part of the ‘Via Crucis’ – the Stations of the Cross, the annual Catholic tradition of re-enacting Jesus Christ’s path to Mount Calvary on the day of his crucifixion.
In 2010, Mexican authorities discovered a mass grave of 72 migrants in Tamaulipas. In response, a procession was organised, with an overtly political agenda. It was designed to raise awareness about Central American migration through Mexico.
ANDRES: In Catholic religion, that’s a very intense moment of the year and it’s really representing all the suffering that Jesus went through for our sins and for human kind.
HOST: Then in 2014, a procession of over 1000 people marched all the way to the US border. The movement was becoming emboldened.
Since then a network of Mexican civil society groups have mounted annual caravans to the border.
ANDRES: There’s this network, there’s this grid of shelters, there’s this grid of activists, of human rights commissions, all across Mexico. This network of shelters and activists have been working on migration-related topics for the past 20 years. You have 3 different actors. One, you have the state human rights commissions. Two, you have the religious organisations: local churches, local priests, local nuns. Third, you have civil society organisations.
And they coordinate themselves to be sure that everyone gets to their destinations as safe as possible and try to avoid any kind of dangers on the road.
HOST: So – if there were already organised caravans that moved annually through Mexico, why did this one get so much attention?
ANDRES: This caravan is very different because this caravan was organised from Honduras. It completely surpassed any kind of organisation within Mexico.
HOST: But it wasn’t just where it came from, it was how it was organised.
ANDRES: So this is more of an anarchic way of organisation. It’s very difficult to say there is one leader or a handful of leaders deciding for this abstract mass of people.
ELENA : What we are seeing here is much more of an exodus.
HOST: An exodus. The sheer number of people who joined the caravan made it different.
But this caravan wasn’t just different because of who was part of the caravan. It was different because of when it happened.
ANDRES: The caravan happened in a very interesting political scenario in the US which was the midterm elections. And the midterm elections happened right after we arrived in Mexico City. It’s no secret that Donald Trump, since the presidential run of 2016, is very vocal about migration, he’s against migration, he’s against refugees. And he’s particularly against Latino migrants which in the US case are basically Mexican or Central American. HOST: That was Andres again, the Mexican human rights defender.
President Trump made this caravan different. It took centre stage in his 2018 midterm election strategy.
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Because many of those people, a percentage, a fairly big percentage of those people are criminals. And they want to come into our country. And they’re criminals. And it’s not happening on my watch. It’s not gonna happen.
HOST: There were early signs that things would be different because of President Trump.
Just 6 months before the Honduras caravan, in April 2018, a Mexican migrant caravan had travelled to the US border. At its peak, it was reported to number about 1,500 people. Many of the parents and children of the caravan who sought asylum in the United States were separated under a new Trump policy. This next audio may be distressing to some listeners.
CHILDREN: Voice 1: My daddy, my daddy.
Voice 2: Can I at least go with my aunt? I want her to come so she can take me to her home.
HOST: The child in that audio clip is saying My daddy, my daddy. The other says: Can I at least go with my aunt? I want her to come so she can take me to her home.
HOST: The timing of the Honduras caravan meant it was going to be more politicised than any other in history.
At high noon the bridge over the border was empty. But then for some reason Guatemalan police threw open the gates. The first tried to form an orderly line but that lasted only seconds as thousands surged behind them with a mixture of exuberance, frustration and determination.
ANDRES: When the migrants crossed the bridge from Teculiman to Ciudad Hidalgo there was a big confrontation with the police, with the Mexican border police there. They had a terrible night where they were repressed by the police and they were tear-gassed by the police.
HOST: David, a young man from Honduras, saw the clash.
DAVID: There was no passing for anyone at the bridge. It was complicated. A lot of people, migrants, were desperate. They broke a part of the gate to pass into Mexico. Then the Federal police opposed them in a violent way. After a while everything calmed down and everyone waited patiently until the moment they would open the door. Others jumped from the bridge, many paid to cross the river, others swam across. In the end, everyone realized that you could easily pass through the river and arrive in Mexico.
HOST: Up until the caravan sought to cross from Guatemala into Mexico, borders hadn’t been a problem. Travel agreements ensured that citizens of Nicaragua, Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador could freely pass throughout the region without restrictions or checks.
But Mexico was part of North America. It wasn’t just the border clash. Being in Mexico brought fears of detention and deportation by Mexican authorities.
But the legacies of caravans past created opportunities for this Exodus. Elena Alderman, a human rights defender and volunteer with Pueblo Sin Fronteras, was one such volunteer.
ELENA: Pueblo Sin Fronteras and other groups particularly work with migrants who are in Mexico. Folks who have already made the decision to leave their homes. We are working with folks to create platforms to organise. We, in the past, have helped with logistics in organising other smaller caravans, so we know the routes. We came down once the caravan came to Mexico.
HOST: Pueblo Sin Fronteras was one of the principal groups involved in the Via Crucis movement and the past caravans. By travelling with the Exodus, their volunteers connected people with existing civil society networks and helped coordinate shelters, transport and other services. They embedded themselves within the caravan and assumed numerous organizing roles such as coordinating media WhatsApp groups, issuing press releases, and helping coordinate public assemblies.
The experienced Pueblo Sin Fronteras volunteers brought another layer of organisational strength to the caravan – at a time they really needed it.
Over the next 2 months, the migrant network worked to arrange safe passage of the Exodus through Mexico.
ANDRES: Human rights defenders who are on the ground, walking with them, we are just accompanying them and making sure that the decision the caravan voted on is respected. And if they can get to a next city and be sure that in that next city there’ll be a shelter, food, medical supplies, doctors, so that’s the way the caravan has been organising itself.
HOST: By November the caravan arrived in Mexico City. There, the city government – a self-declared sanctuary city – hosted the Exodus at the Magdalena Mixhuca Sporting Complex. They were joined by a congregation of international and local NGOs and health and welfare services.
HOST: Saul and his friends were one of many unofficial groups who brought clothes to donate to the migrants.
SAUL: We just brought a collection that we put together at our school. We invited the students to donate their clothes, mainly for the cold.
HOST: Our reporter Mark Isaacs was at the stadium. Speaking to volunteers like Marlene from the Mexican Institute for Psychology of Emergencies gave him an insight into the hardships of the journey.
MARLENE: It really is a hard situation for them, causing post-traumatic stress, depression, anxiety.
HOST: In Mexico City, the assembly started to diversify. Alongside its geographic committees, it established a committee of women and mothers with children, a trans committee.
On 8 November, the Caravan had to make a crucial decision about when and how they would travel to the US border. People gathered in Assembly to decide the route. Should they take the perceived safer route along the west coast to the city of Tijuana; or the shorter, more dangerous route along the east coast through the state of Tamaulipas.
HOST: Hundreds of people, predominantly men, crowded around a temporary stage inside the athletics stadium where the members of the Exodus were housed. Our reporter Mark was among them. While the crowd waited for the assembly to begin, loudspeakers played reggaeton and the crowd danced. When it was time to start the assembly, the music was turned off and half the crowd protested.
HOST: By this time, as a caravan of almost 7000 people, Assemblies were a complicated space to make difficult discussions.
Walter Cuello took the stage and argued for the safer route to Tijuana.
WALTER: Okay everyone, the assembly, raise your hand if you want to leave for Tijuana. <pause> Raise your hand those who do not want to leave for Tijuana. <pause> We are going to Tijuana. Crowd cheers.
HOST: Although the assembly voted to leave for Tijuana the following day, the next morning the majority of people did not wake up. The men who voted at the assembly didn’t represent the true demographics of the Exodus. The families were not ready to leave.
VOLUNTEER: All the supporters they do it mostly for the children and the women. They don’t do it for the men. For many years the men have migrated as a train of men and nobody did anything for them. Today they do it for the children and the women.
HOST: The Assembly may have been open to everyone, but not everyone always turned up.
There was a counterbalancing force to the Assembly’s decision. Here, the families – the silent majority of the Exodus – were voting with their feet.
The caravan’s organisational challenges created spaces for cracks to show. They weren’t political divisions, but growing doubts as to whether the caravan could actually provide collective safety.
Outside of major cities like Mexico City, the sheer number of people stretched the network’s capacity to ensure safe travel through the country. Wherever the caravan stopped, shelters were overcrowded and beyond capacity. As a result, people were often forced to sleep on the street. Cities and local governments began to withdraw their support.
FELIPE: Hello comrades, I am Felipe here from People Without Borders. Here we are a big group of more or less 5,000 people leaving Guadalajara.
Last night the Government Secretary of Jalisco promised us help to arrive at our next location. He said that although the Benito Juarez stadium in the city had been prepared to receive more migrants this week, he told us you have to leave Guadalajara.
HOST: It was a bitter pill – Jalisco is one of the richest states in Mexico.
The state agreed to arrange transportation for members of the Exodus from Guadalajara to the next state north. Unfortunately, that state was still suffering the consequences of a recent hurricane.
FELIPE: This morning, the buses left at 5 in the morning. Trusting the governor, we left and they left us 100 kilometres from the highway.
HOST: Thus began the dislocation of the Exodus across north-west Mexico.
ANTONIO: It was very, very complicated because the buses didn’t come and everyone was walking, others were in trucks.
HOST: Most people like Antonio managed to hitch rides to the meeting point at the state border where they waited with the rest of the Exodus for buses to Sinaloa.
From there people were loaded on and off buses at seemingly random locations on unknown highways for days on end until they reached Mexicali and the US border.
Many members of the Exodus who were not part of the planning committees had little to no knowledge of how transport was being arranged. They just waited and hoped buses would arrive to pick them up and take them to the next location.
ANTONIO: We are without transport, without food, without water. There’s a lot of people gathered here, but there isn’t transport until now. So far only four buses have left. They said they will arrange more but there isn’t transport.
HOST: That was Antonio, stranded on a highway in the desert state of Sonora, in an area where drug cartels were known to operate.
Earlier in the journey, in the state of Puebla, it was reported that 100 members of the caravan, including women and children, went missing. Human rights activists claimed the migrants were kidnapped and handed over to Los Zetas.
During this period of dislocation, two buses of men, women and children were stopped on the main highway in Sonora by personnel from the National Institute of Migration and the Federal Police. The migrants were detained and threatened with deportation.
HOST: In the following days, the National Human Rights Commission arranged for the detained people to be released and to be transferred to two migrant shelters. It was a frightening experience but ultimately they were given their freedom.
Eventually the members of the Exodus arrived in Tijuana. The border was close, but it still had to be crossed.
HOST:Mexico’s border towns are a place of mixed emotion for any migrant hoping to get to the United States.
TINA: I thought I’m so close, really close, just one pass. Just one pass and I thought, I’m going to get there, it won’t be long now. It’s a sensation of feeling good but at the same time it feels like impotence. Impotence in being unable to cross that wall. But it feels good because we are here!
HOST: But in Tijuana a new organisation was needed. Now people needed to come together based on how they wanted to cross into the US.
The majority of people – especially the families, women and children – intended to claim asylum at the US border. Immigration lawyer Anna Joseph explains the process.
ANNA JOSEPH: First they’ll wait outside the port of entry. It changes day to day how long the wait is but generally weeks. Then they will go to something called the hielaria, which is a short-term detention centre where they will wait, partially there and partially in another detention centre, for their “credible fear” interviews. It’s called the “hielaria” because it’s so cold. People faint, there is not enough food, there is not enough water, there aren’t enough blankets. It’s a really hard situation. Then they will have their credible fear interview. After that interview it is likely they will be detained long term because Trump is trying to detain everyone up until their hearings and that could be up to three years. In the past, more people were released to wait for their hearings because why cage people who have done nothing wrong and are fleeing violence for up to three years. Trump says that people don’t then return for their hearings but that’s not what the statistics show. So he is trying to detain everyone as part of a strategy to deter future caravans.
HOST: Gradually people would be allowed entry into the US to start the asylum seeking process. But it’s very slow.
JIRINEO: The asylum process is too slow. It’s like 40 people per day. Donald Trump has tried to make this a circus, like everything else. He’s trying to supposedly stop or trying to gain votes, he’s basically using it politically, and they’re not taking as many numbers.
HOST: Some members of the Exodus, like Walter, preferred to claim asylum in Mexico.
WALTER: In my case I am not overly interested in the United States. I am thinking about applying for political asylum here in Mexico because there is a lot of work, there is a good president, Mr Lopez Obrador.
HOST: And according to the UNHCR, applications for asylum in Mexico are increasing.
But in the meantime, the ongoing presence of the migrants in the city and ongoing disruptions to the border crossings caused tension in Tijuana.
HOST: In November an anti-migrant protest attracted no more than 100 people but their message was amplified by their anger.
PROTESTER: We don’t have problems with the immigration, we have a problem with invasion. The caravan are invaders. They are invaders. They are not immigrants that come here to work. They believe they are on holidays, they come to make rubbish. They are ungrateful. Why do they complain they don’t have anything to eat, why do they have children? Why do they have children if they are not capable of looking after them? Why do they reproduce? (crowd chant: Tijuana, Tijuana, Tijuana)
HOST: On Sunday 25 November 2018, members of the Exodus organised their own, much larger peaceful march to the US-Mexico Border to protest against the slow processing of asylum claims by the US government.
SFX: PEACEFUL MARCH CHANT: We are the hope of Latin America. Red stained are the borders. Because it’s there, where the working class is killed.
HOST: They are saying : We are the hope of Latin America. Red stained are the borders. Because it’s there, where the working class is killed.
HOST: When members of the march evaded police blockades, the action got out of hand. Hundreds of people streamed towards the border wall. Tear gas was fired on men, women and children. And our reporter, Mark.
MARK: I just got teargassed. My fucking eyes are running and my throat is fucking killing me. It’s not pleasant.
JIRINEO: The march was something that supposed to be peaceful. It got out of control. It got out of control and some people decided to try and cross the border. It wasn’t that many. If you are talking about 5,000 people only about 50 or 60 tried to cross.
HOST: As the tension in Tijuana grew, many people from the caravan felt the need to cross the border sooner rather than later. But not everyone intended to claim asylum. Many didn’t trust the US government and were fearful they wouldn’t be eligible for asylum. Some decided to jump the border wall in Tijuana.
Vincent explains how the wall works.
VINCENT: The wall has different designs. Not all is equal. There are parts you can see through it. It is not completely closed. I jumped over it and crossed to the other side.
HOST: Bill Clinton first began the installation of a border wall in 1993. It is not one continuous structure and there are long stretches of the 2000 mile border that have no physical barrier, the longest of which is more than 600 miles. As of August 2017, only 705 miles had pedestrian fencing or vehicle fencing. As it is, the various border walls cost billions of dollars to maintain.
Marco was at the Tijuana border wall preparing to cross.
MARCO:Mark: So, you were saying tonight you were going to try and get across the wall?
Marco: That’s correct.
Mark: And then what’s the plan?
Marco: Just run. Run for it. Run for it. Try and make it to the city.
HOST: Tijuana is one of Mexico’s and the world’s most dangerous cities. People trying to cross the border are particularly vulnerable to attacks and kidnapping from drug cartels who control the border territories and drug smuggling routes.
MARCO: They run this. This is their place. They do the police, the judges, how they want.
Jesus was lucky to escape with his life.
JESUS: We were going, we were going. Ahead in the street a man came out and we looked at him take out a gun. A pistol. Boom. He tried to shoot us, to kill us, but when I saw the man take out the gun, I quickly ran away, and everyone followed me.
HOST: Some paid people smugglers to help them cross; others who couldn’t afford to pay, smuggle drugs across the border for the cartels.
ANTONIO: One is looking for an option to cross into the United States, right? Because the only option that we have, the many who have been deported, is working for the mafia, getting drugs to the United States.
HOST: A lot of people, like Antonio, didn’t make it.
Meanwhile President Trump’s rhetoric around the border and migration was becoming histrionic.
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: We are taking people out of the country. You wouldn’t believe how bad these people are. These aren’t people, these are animals.
HOST: By December the tension was overflowing. In the US, sections of the media called the Exodus a border crisis.
President Trump used the opportunity to turn the caravan into a proxy war for his failing plan to build a wall – executing a partial government shutdown until the Senate approved funds for construction of the border wall.
DONALD TRUMP: We are going to have a wall, we are going to have safety. We need safety for our country. Even from this standpoint. We have terrorists coming in through the southern border.
HOST: Although border walls are a physical impediment to drug traffickers and undocumented migrants, there is no clear evidence that these walls are successful deterrents. Instead, the events in Tijuana suggest border walls push undocumented migrants into more dangerous routes, often involving criminal networks and smugglers, to reach US territory.
What the caravan made abundantly clear is that a border wall doesn’t stop people from fleeing violence, corruption, and poverty. If policymakers in the US really want to stop people migrating north, perhaps they should examine their own foreign policies and resolve the ongoing issues in origin countries like Honduras and El Salvador.
TINA: The only people who don’t try to get out are the ones who don’t have any ambition.
HOST: In many ways the Migrant Caravan was a success. It’s original intention was to provide its members safer travel to the US border, which for the most part it did. The connection with Mexican civil society groups mitigated many of the risks, and helped them arrange transport and accommodation across isolated routes. It wasn’t perfect, but it was much better than traveling alone.
As David Abud, a volunteer with Pueblo Sin Fronteras, sees it – while the physical caravan formally ended when it arrived at the US border, the movement goes on.
DAVID: In the US we are trying to organise members of the caravan who are now in the US and have been released from detention centres. And we are working with people who are still detained and people who have been detained and are now out. It’s a process of politicisation. And it’s a process of building community and support.
HOST: The Migrant Caravan has also been an inspiration to others. Immediately after the Exodus set out from Honduras, smaller caravans began organising in Central America and leaving for the US, including one in El Salvador.
President Trump’s proxy war had unintended consequences. The caravan shed light on some of the darker practises of the US immigration department and border security, such as the treatment of child detainees including the deaths of two migrant children while in custody.
HOST: There were also lessons in how the Exodus held itself together through extraordinary adversity.
But there was no Moses here. The Caravan’s leadership was diffuse and horizontal. As Andres Checka explains, this Exodus shows how a different kind of leadership can work.
ANDRES: The media is used to looking for leaders in social movements. They really crave that idea of the leader in social movements. A lot of the movements that are happening now are very horizontal. They lack those civil leaderships. A lot of them have been successful thanks to a lack of leadership.
HOST: Unlike in so many demonstrations where change makers march through the streets for symbolic reasons, this march across continents was eminently practical. It was contagious. It was confronting. It was something anyone could do, and anyone could join. It was a tremendous action that generated thousands of reactions.
ANDRES: Migrants do something amazing, which is they challenge the whole system with something very simple which is walking. They only walk and they challenge the whole system. Migrants don’t arrive to the country and call federal authorities to negotiate. No, they just keep walking.
You walk with the caravan in some of the most poor and violent municipalities in the country and even there you don’t starve. You’ll always have something to eat. You’ll always have somewhere to stay.
There is a level of empathy at the very low level, grassroots organisation. And I think that sometimes we look at media that portrays migrants as invaders, violent invaders. They don’t empathise with the migrant because they are not going through that level of violence that migrants are going through.
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