TAPACHULA, Mexico — They had walked nearly 10 hours the day before in 90-degree heat with no shade. Mothers held their infant children, breastfeeding them as they walked to try and quiet them. Fathers implored their 3-year-olds to keep putting one foot in front of the other. When this group of several thousand people finally arrived here, they slept on the ground in the open air and went to the bathroom anywhere they could find.
On Tuesday – under equally grueling conditions – the mostly Honduran migrants set off again, to a city another 26 miles north. All of them were exhausted, but they saw no point in staying put. Their goal is to reach the United States — still at least 1,050 miles away — or 53 days away, if they walk 20 miles a day without stopping.
President Trump has turned the caravan into a race-baiting talking point at campaign rallies this week, characterizing the group as an “assault on the sovereignty of our country.” At one point he said without proof that criminals and “Middle Easterners” have embedded in the group, a claim repeated Tuesday by Vice President Mike Pence. (Women and children comprise more than half of the approximately 5,100 migrants counted by the Suchiate municipal government in southern Mexico).
“They see us as animals. And we aren’t. We are human beings,” said Irineo Mujica, director of the migrants rights group Pueblo Sin Fronteras, at a fiery press conference in Tapachula on Monday. “We have the right to live without fear. To seek a better life for our families.”
But among those walking, many say reaching the United States isn't their goal; rather, it is getting out of Honduras, where life has gotten markedly worse under President Juan Orlando Hernandez, who took office in January 2014.
Gas prices have increased more than 10 percent since the beginning of the year, leading to mass protests. Honduras has the most income inequality in Latin America and one of the world’s highest homicide rates, according to the World Bank. Many Hondurans in the caravan in their late 20s refer to themselves as “old,” because they say they have no future ahead of them and are living only for their children. Gangs routinely charge “rent” — a euphemism for extortion — and those who can’t pay are often killed.
Read: The truth, it's even worse in Honduras:" Migrants face misery on Mexico border
Tomas Torres, 24, said he worked for the Honduran government for a year and a half watching over its properties, and that he hadn’t been paid in three months. “They kept saying ‘tomorrow, tomorrow we will pay,’ and then the hour came and there was nothing,” Torres said. “We have to provide food for our wife and kids. We didn’t have any option but to emigrate north. There are no other jobs.”
To the degree that there is a political message to be found among this group, it’s that they want President Hernandez gone. Flor Lopez, who reluctantly decided to return to Honduras after she was denied passage into Mexico, said she doesn’t regret the failed journey.
“If one doesn’t fight and protest against the government we have we are never going to achieve anything. They will always bully us,” Lopez said, as she waited for a bus provided by the Guatemalan government to take her back. “All of the population turned against the president, and that makes him scared. Because all the money that the United States gives Honduras only serves to help him.”
The migrants themselves are largely oblivious to the outcry their journey has caused up north. Few are talking about President Trump or the dangers that await them at the U.S. border. None appear to have any idea that their journey north could impact the midterm elections, or even that there are upcoming elections in the U.S.
And an astonishing few parents seem to know much about Trump’s family separation policy, underscoring the limits of Trump’s efforts to deter illegal immigration.
Even though about 1,500 Honduras have turned back, the caravan keeps swelling with thousands of migrants who have joined up on the Mexican side of the border.
Those include Adonis Alexander Pinera, 22, who arrived to Mexico a month ago. “This shows that the Honduran people are united,” he said, as he marched toward Tapachula. “It’s better to go together and not separately. Unity is our strength.”
The mood was festive as the caravan made its first steps north into Mexico. But as the sun bore down, the vibe turned somber. There was little talking — the act of doing even that seemed to take too much energy in the overwhelming heat — although the migrants yelled out words of encouragement and gave up precious water to those resting on the side of the road.
Mexico, for its part, has done little to stop the caravan, despite its initial show of force when President Pena Nieto sent hundreds of federal police to reinforce the Mexico-Guatemala border.
Mexicans watch and worry
While federal police made a show of stopping the migrants on a bridge connecting the two countries, they made a half-hearted effort at best to stop the flow of migrants crossing the Suchiate River below, and so far they have done nothing to impede the caravan’s progress within Mexico. To the contrary, some officers could be seen from the back of trucks taking videos of the caravan, seemingly as awed as everyone else by its sheer size.
Meanwhile, the response to the caravan among Mexicans has been mixed. One woman stood on the side of the road handing out small change to the passing migrants. But Luz Maria Alfaro, a nurse in Tapachula, said she had contradictory feelings.
“The Bible talks about the exodus, and how the Israelites escaped slavery in search of a better life. It’s the same that is happening right now,” she said. “But there’s fear that in their desperation they will begin to rob. I am a little scared because some of the people from there belong to gangs and they are looking to make trouble.”
God also weighs heavily on the minds of the migrants, most of whom have placed all of their hopes for entering the United States on his good will. Carlos Madrid, 29, framed the journey in biblical terms. He said his brother, who lives in South Carolina, told him that he “would have to walk for miles on end, put up with rain, sun, storms, dangerous areas with bad people.”
And what happens if they get to the United States and are deported? “I would try again,” Madrid said. “Because above all you have to have faith in God.”
Cover image: A Honduran migrant couple and their five kids taking part in a caravan heading to the US, wait to cross the border from Ciudad Tecun Uman in Guatemala, to Ciudad Hidalgo, Mexico, on October 22, 2018. (Photo: ORLANDO SIERRA/AFP/Getty Images)