These Harrowing Photos Show What the Journey to the Mexico-US Border Is Really Like

In November, the Magnum photographer Larry Towell followed along as the migrants Trump railed against sought asylum amid chaos.

by Alex Norcia; photos by Larry Towell
Jan 28 2019, 10:13pm

Irapuato, Guanajuato, Mexico. November 12, 2018. North of Irapuato, about 1,500 miles from Tijuana. Migrants board a truck carrying rolls of steel rebar used for construction. Many drivers let migrants board despite the danger. Others refuse and continue on their way.

Last Friday, after the federal government had been partially shut down for over a month, Donald Trump finally agreed to reopen it. Well, for three weeks, at least: Between now and February 15, America's esteemed lawmakers will once again debate how best to deal with the southern border, one Trump, of course, has long deemed in desperate need of a "big, beautiful wall."

It's a campaign promise that went unfilled during the first two years of his presidency, the linchpin in a depraved rhetoric that somehow got uglier last fall, when Trump learned a "migrant caravan" was heading toward the border between the United States and Mexico. Thousands of people fleeing poverty and violence in Honduras and Guatemala had set off in the hopes of settling in (or at least reaching) America. It wasn't the first of its kind: that caravan had been preceded by others, and last week, the Washington Post reported a new caravan of more than 10,000 people was making its way to the border.

The Canadian photographer Larry Towell, who shoots primarily in black and white, arrived in Mexico City on November 9, 2018—just as a midterm campaign defined in part by Trump's caravan-focused demagoguery had ended—without an assignment. He was there, by his own accord, to follow that wave of migrants as they made their way north to Tijuana, documenting an expedition that had attracted so much attention from the most powerful man in the world. He had been unaware, initially, that migrants planned to leave very early the next morning, at 5 AM; when he showed up late at the stadium where they had been staying, the photographer had to scramble.

Towell, however, is no stranger to this part of the world, or these sorts of issues—he has long shined a light on the dispossessed, on those in exile. In the 1980s, he made a name for himself shooting everything from the Contras, the US-supported, murderous right-wing rebel group in Nicaragua, to the family members of those who had been "disappeared" at the height of the Guatemalan Civil War.

Below, published for the first time here, are photos taken by Towell of a journey that hasn't always attracted elite attention, but has consistently been defined by hardship, courage, and perseverance.

Find more of Larry Towell's work on his website. All photos by Larry Towell/Magnum Photos.

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Tijuana, Mexico. November 2018. This wall runs from the Pacific Ocean along the US-Mexico border.
Guadalajara, Mexico. November 12, 2018. Families ride on transport trucks.
Querétaro, Mexico. November 11, 2018. Migrants hitch rides.
Querétaro, Mexico. November 11, 2018. Migrants board transport trucks.
Tijuana, Mexico. November 17, 2018. Migrants take refuge at Benito Juárez sports stadium.
Irapuato, Guanajuato, Mexico. November 12, 2018. Migrants break camp at 5 AM.
Mexico City, Mexico. November 9, 2018. Migrant family leaves stadium at 5:00 AM.
Palmillas, Querétaro, Mexico. November 10, 2018
Tijuana, Mexico. November 16, 2018. Refugees dance at Benito Juárez sports stadium.
Tijuana, Mexico. November 16, 2018. This wall at the beach runs from the Pacific Ocean along the US-Mexico border.