SAN PEDRO SULA, Honduras — The flier had been circulating for weeks. “We are looking for refuge. In Honduras they kill us,” the red and black block letters said. It announced that a new caravan would be leaving the central bus station in San Pedro Sula at 5 a.m. on Tuesday.
Media attention and cautionary government announcements spread the word. By nightfall Monday, more than 1,000 Hondurans had gathered outside the bus station. They didn’t want to wait till morning to begin the journey, so they started walking around 9 p.m., in the rain, headed northwest in the direction of Guatemala, Mexico, and the U.S.
“I’m going to go as far as they let me pass,” said José Lionel Amador, 16, who was traveling with his cousin and dreams of earning a better living in America, where he hopes to paint cars in a mechanic’s shop. He knew only a little about the last major caravan, a group of thousands of Central American migrants who traveled en masse to the U.S.-Mexico border last fall and became President Trump’s talking point for demanding funding for a border wall. It’s the central issue in the ongoing, weeks-long government shutdown in the U.S.
“They said that some people made it across and others didn’t,” Amador said, wearing jeans and a tank top, with a sweater tied around his waist. Unlike most of the migrants, who carry a small backpack with a few supplies, he came with only the clothes on his back, saying he left his house in a spur-of-the-moment decision to join the group.
And so begins another mass exodus of migrants from Central America, their sheer presence more fuel for Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric. On Tuesday, Trump pointed to the new caravan — which has grown to about 2,000 people — to back his demand that Congress allocate $5.7 billion for the border wall.
“A big new Caravan is heading up to our Southern Border from Honduras. Tell Nancy and Chuck that a drone flying around will not stop them,” Trump wrote on Twitter, referring to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, who have refused Trump’s demand for the funding.
He added: “Only a Wall, or Steel Barrier, will keep our Country safe! Stop playing political games and end the Shutdown!”
As with prior caravans, the latest group is a mix of mostly single men and families with no clear organizer telling them where to go. They are fleeing desperate circumstances: mass unemployment, powerful criminal gangs, and rampant violence coupled with impunity for the perpetrators. In the first 13 days of the year, 22 people in Honduras were assassinated in six separate events, according to local media reports.
Pueblos Sin Fronteras, which assisted the migrants who reached Tijuana late last year, denied any participation with the most recent caravan, leading to questions about who was in charge, if anyone. “PSF is completely uninvolved and has no fundraising efforts for the next caravan,” said Alex Mensing, an activist with the group. “We learned about it through the press and social media.”
Bartolo Fuentes, a migrant advocate and former lawmaker who helped promote the massive caravan that left Honduras in October, also said he was not involved. “There are organizers, but on a micro level,” he said. “One guy from a neighborhood says ‘I am going’ and then someone else says ‘I am going with him,’ and it snowballs from there,” he said.
This caravan is moving much faster than the one that left Honduras in October and ballooned to around 7,000 people as migrants from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Mexico joined it. While that group mostly walked for the first part of the journey, this latest group is largely catching rides and taking buses. Many have already reached the Guatemalan border, and hundreds have already crossed to the other side.
But the Honduran government has taken a harder line than last year, perhaps prompted by Trump’s threats in the fall to cut off aid to Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador if they didn’t stop the migrant caravans.
On Monday, Honduran officials said they would stop people from leaving the country if they don’t have government identification. They’re also threatening criminal charges against parents traveling with minors if the children don’t have passports. At the checkpoint on the Guatemala border, police directed any minors traveling unaccompanied to step aside. Local media reported that the Honduran government had detained 60 minors on Tuesday.
A looming question is how Mexico will respond to the group when it reaches its southern border. Mexico’s new president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, has pledged a more humanitarian approach to migrants, while also making surprise concessions to Trump, including a tentative plan requiring asylum seekers to the U.S. to stay in Mexico while their cases are processed.
Interior Minister Olga Sanchez Cordero said at a news conference last week that the government would deploy guards at 370 points of illegal entry along its southern border to “stop the entry of undocumented people.” She said it would register everyone who wanted to cross legally, and offer them visas to stay and work in Mexico, though it was unclear whether Mexico has the capacity to quickly process so many people.
“This is the first test for Mexico to figure out what they think about border control,” said Andrew Selee, president of the D.C.-based Migration Policy Institute. “If you don’t create some controls, do you end up incentivizing a backlash against immigrants over time?”
But many migrants say despite Mexico’s offer to receive them, their goal is still the U.S. José Manuel Huardado, 18, said he was inspired to join by stories of people from the previous caravans who had made it.
“They’re fighting their asylum cases,” he said. “I’m looking for a way out so that I don’t turn into a disaster. Here, there’s only drugs and vices.”
Cover: Honduran migrants walk along the roadside through Esquipulas, Guatemala, as they make their way toward the U.S. border, early Wednesday, Jan. 16, 2019. The latest caravan of Honduran migrants hoping to reach the U.S. has crossed into Guatemala. (AP Photo/Moises Castillo)