The Migrant Caravan: Made in USA

Susan Meiselas/Magnum Photos

Hondurans living at the Iglesia Embajadores de Jesus shelter in Tijuana while waiting for their US asylum applications to be processed, December 2018

The migrant caravan that left Honduras and headed north toward the US last October is the largest flight from drug trafficking in history. Though the phenomenon of Central American caravans isn’t new, never before have thousands of people decided to flee from criminal organizations in such numbers. It is, in a sense, the biggest anti-mafia march the world has ever seen.

The migrants departed from San Pedro Sula, the second-largest city in Honduras and its economic center, not far from the Guatemalan border. Roughly 160 people had arranged to meet at the city’s bus terminal on October 12, the date of Columbus’s arrival in the Americas. By the time they set out, their number had grown to a thousand. People choose to leave together to shield one another, to protect themselves from being robbed along the way of the little they have. The alternative is to rely on coyotes (human traffickers), who charge seven or eight thousand dollars, sometimes more, to take migrants to the US—sums that can take decades of work to save, and that many borrow from criminals to whom they are then indebted for life. To leave in such a large group, then, is a form of defense against crime.

San Pedro Sula may not be well known, but from 2011 to 2014 it was the most violent city in the world. (Caracas took the title in 2015.) The only thing to do there is escape. The crime syndicates, which have complete control over the region and the power of life and death over its people, have in recent years plunged Honduras into an unofficial state of war. In 2012 the country had the highest murder rate in the world: nationally 90 people per 100,000 inhabitants were killed, but in San Pedro Sula the rate was 169 per 100,000. So far the provisional data for 2018 show the national murder rate to be down to about 40 per 100,000. Despite the decline, the murder rate remains extremely high—the US rate, by comparison, is fewer than 5 per 100,000 inhabitants.1

Several seasons of the reality show L’isola dei famosi (“Celebrity Island,” the Italian version of Celebrity Survivor) were shot in Honduras, which in the Western imagination has long been a natural paradise of white sand beaches where fish and coconut palms are plentiful and mosquitoes are the biggest nuisance. But the reality is quite different. In its annual Global Competitiveness Report, the World Economic Forum compiles a ranking of the countries where organized crime has the greatest impact on society. In the report published at the end of 2017, Honduras ranked second, behind only El Salvador. In the 2018 report, El Salvador still ranked first, while Honduras dropped to fifth. In both rankings, however, the five countries with the biggest organized crime problems were all the same, though their order changed, and all were in Latin America: El Salvador, Honduras, Venezuela, Mexico, and Guatemala.

Together with El Salvador and Guatemala, Honduras forms the so-called Northern Triangle of Central America, one of the most dangerous non-war zones on the planet. What has made this region such a hell on earth is the fact that it is situated between the main producers of cocaine—Colombia, Peru, and Bolivia—and the main seller, Mexico. Honduras, furthermore, has two coasts, one on the Caribbean and one on the Pacific, making it a convenient point of arrival and departure for shipments of cocaine, and thus a very attractive base for traffickers. The migrant caravan is following the same land route as the cocaine that enters the US every day.

In recent months some have said of the migrants, “Instead of running away, they should try to change the situation in their country!” Only those unfamiliar with the Honduran situation could say such a thing. Anyone who opposes it, anyone who criticizes or tries to change it, risks death. Between 2010 and 2016, more than 120 environmental and human rights activists were killed in Honduras. Freedom of the press is also under siege, as Reporters Without Borders has documented. Honduras is one of the most dangerous Latin American countries for journalists, seventy of whom have been killed there since 2001, with more than 90 percent of those murders going unpunished. Anyone who writes has two choices: leave the country or stop writing. Exile yourself or censor yourself. Otherwise you may be sued for libel—libel suits are expensive to defend against, and even if journalists are eventually cleared, their credibility in the eyes of the public is often damaged. Or you may be jailed on false charges, or killed. And attacks on the freedom of the press come not only from criminal organizations, but also from politicians.

President Trump talks about the migrant caravan as if it were an attempted invasion. In reality, Honduras and Central America have paid an enormous price precisely because of US policies. The dire situation in Honduras right now is shaped by the drug market, and the world’s largest consumer of cocaine is the United States. As early as 1975, Honduras was being used as a staging area by the Cali Cartel, led by the Rodríguez Orejuela brothers (the powerful rivals of Pablo Escobar, the head of the Medellín Cartel). After their arrest, they told prosecutors that cocaine left Colombia by plane and landed in San Pedro Sula—the city from which the caravan originated—and from there went on to Miami.

Through the 1980s, the Colombian cartels transported their cocaine to the US mainly by boat, across the Caribbean to Florida. But when the US Drug Enforcement Administration ramped up inspections in those waters and began seizing more and more shipments, the land route to the United States from Central America through Mexico (with the help of Mexican traffickers) became a better alternative. And when the civil wars in El Salvador and Guatemala ended (in 1992 and 1996, respectively), that route was used more and more, since criminal organizations prefer to steer clear of conflict zones.

But the end of those conflicts also created another opportunity for the cartels. During the civil wars, many parents in El Salvador, in order to keep their sons from becoming either guerrillas of the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN) or regular army soldiers destined for slaughter, sent them to the United States. Abandoned to their fate in Los Angeles, marginalized by American society, some of these youths formed the maras, street gangs of young Central American immigrants who banded together to defend themselves from the African-American, Asian, and Mexican gangs already active there. Thus were born extremely violent, close-knit groups such as Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and Mara 18 (also known as the 18th Street gang or Barrio 18), whose names came from the LA streets that were their headquarters.2

Once the Central American civil wars had ended, the US government, eager to rid itself of this problem, sent back to their native lands thousands of young men. Having left as boys, they returned as gangsters. In those ravaged countries where poverty was rampant, they saw opportunity in the drug trade, and at the same time the cartels, always looking for new muscle, found them. Meanwhile, Honduras, the one country in the region untouched by civil war, had been used not only as a smuggling hub by criminal organizations but also as a base for US efforts to supply the contras, the paramilitary group fighting the socialist government of Nicaragua. Everything, that is, passed through Honduras—both drugs and weapons—goods that often shared not only routes but also intermediaries. The story of the Honduran drug lord Juan Ramón Matta-Ballesteros is illustrative: he forged a link between the Medellín Cartel and the Guadalajara Cartel (revenue from their cocaine shipments to the United States reached $5 million a week in the 1980s), and he also worked for the US government, using his air transport company to deliver arms to the contras.

The involvement of the United States goes further. In 2008 the US government signed the Mérida Initiative with Mexico and the Central American countries, a multiyear agreement under which it pledged to cooperate in the fight against drug trafficking by providing those countries (especially Mexico) with economic support, police training, and military resources. This crackdown pushed the Mexican cartels—already under pressure from the war on drugs that Mexican president Felipe Calderón had begun in 2006—to lean increasingly on Central America and its drug gangs.

The Honduran situation worsened on June 28, 2009, when a military coup forced President Manuel Zelaya to flee to Costa Rica. Zelaya had been elected with the support of the rich conservatives of the Partido Liberal, but during his term, which began in 2006, he proved open to dialogue with minority groups and friendly to the poorest, least powerful classes. In an effort to improve his country’s economy and his people’s lives, he joined the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America (ALBA), an organization conceived by former Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez to promote economic cooperation among the countries of Latin America and to counter the influence of the US over them.

But Zelaya was veering too far to the left for the Honduran oligarchy that had put him in power. The chance to oust him arose when he called for an advisory referendum on the election of a constituent assembly to rewrite the Honduran constitution with the goal of increasing participatory democracy and citizen equality. The assembly could also have removed presidential term limits, which under article 239 of the Honduran constitution could not even be proposed; this was enough for coup leaders to justify removing him, despite the fact that the referendum was merely advisory and therefore nonbinding. (Article 239 was struck down by the Honduran Supreme Court in 2015.)

After the coup, in the political instability that followed, criminal organizations ramped up their activities, taking advantage of corrupt police forces and often colluding with politicians and members of the military. On December 8, 2009, the Honduran government’s drug czar, Julián Arístides González Irías, was assassinated on his way to work: after he had dropped his daughter off at school, a car blocked the road and a motorcycle approached, one of its two riders firing an Uzi through the window of his SUV. Years later it was discovered that the murder had been ordered by high-ranking Honduran police officials and planned in one of their offices, revelations that led to a law enforcement shake-up in which over five thousand officers were dismissed on corruption charges. But in October 2018 a new and embarrassing piece was added to this already disheartening puzzle: the man who had been in charge of the “purification” of the force, National Police Commissioner Lorgio Oquelí Mejía Tinoco, was himself accused of money laundering and corruption, among other things, and is now a fugitive.

This story and many others make clear that Honduras is a de facto narco state. In 2009 Porfirio Lobo Sosa won the first presidential election after the coup; in May 2016 his son Fabio pleaded guilty to drug trafficking charges in the US, hoping for a reduced sentence. He got twenty-four years in prison. Judge Lorna Schofield said at his sentencing:

You were the son of the sitting president of Honduras, and you used your connections, your reputation in your political network to try to further corrupt connections between drug traffickers and Honduran government officials…. You facilitated strong government support for a large drug trafficking organization for multiple elements of the Honduran government, and you enriched yourself in the process.

And history may repeat itself: Juan Antonio (Tony) Hernández, a former Honduran congressman and the brother of the current president, Juan Orlando Hernández, was arrested in Miami on November 23, 2018, for his alleged ties to drug traffickers, particularly Los Cachiros, whose leader claimed in a US court to have paid him kickbacks when he was in Congress. According to the indictment, from 2004 to 2016 Hernández was involved in the trafficking through Honduras of tons of cocaine destined for the US: he accepted bribes from the traffickers, and he hired armed guards and bribed law enforcement officials to protect drug shipments and to keep quiet. Further, authorities discovered that certain cocaine labs Hernández had access to in Honduras and Colombia were producing bricks of cocaine stamped with the initials TH, which may stand for Tony Hernández. He is awaiting trial and, if convicted, faces a maximum term of life in prison.

In 2010 the United States for the first time identified Honduras as one of the major drug transit countries and since then has cooperated with Honduran authorities to combat drug trafficking. But the offensive has involved only efforts to suppress criminal organizations and has shown no real willingness to tackle, at a societal level, the problem of drug trafficking and gangs, for which the US bears a great deal of responsibility. President Trump limits himself to exploiting the effects of the tragedy: when he speaks about the caravan, he talks of “invaders,” of “stone cold criminals,” who must be coming to the US to occupy and plunder. None of this is true. But to understand, we must grasp how badly US policy has failed and how culpable and terribly complicit it is in the current situation.

Today the maras—the gangs—provide the best employment opportunities for youth in Central America. According to a 2012 report from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, the maras in El Salvador had about 20,000 members, those in Guatemala about 22,000, and those in Honduras about 12,000 (though a report that same year from USAID indicated a much higher number in Honduras). As Corrado Alvaro, an Italian writer from Calabria—a region plagued even in his day by the mafia group known as ’Ndrangheta—wrote in 1955, “When a society offers few opportunities, or none, to improve one’s station, creating fear becomes a way to rise.” Mareros, or gang members, tattoo their face and body to signal their gang membership and to openly declare their separation from civilian society, as if their gangs were military divisions operating in a sort of parallel life. Gangs control the territory and protect the trafficking of the big cartels. Businesses are subjected to shakedowns, streets become the scenes of clashes between rival gangs competing for dealing locations, and the jungle is a no-man’s land in which clandestine runways are carved for planes loaded with cocaine. Some urban areas are off-limits to ordinary citizens; a perpetual curfew reigns. The maras recruit boys—younger each year—as drug-trafficking foot soldiers; refusing to join can be fatal.

Because no one protects the populace from the abuses and threats of the gangs, people feel abandoned and in constant danger. This feeling is exacerbated by the extraordinary level of impunity in Honduras. In 2013, Attorney General Luis Alberto Rubí caused an uproar by declaring before the Honduran Congress that law enforcement had the manpower to investigate only about 20 percent of the nation’s murders, and that therefore the remaining 80 percent were certain to go unpunished. In Honduras (as in other Central American countries) being a sicario—a contract killer—is a real profession: in the morning you wake up and wait for a call asking you to commit a murder, for which you’ll be paid more than you could hope to make at any other job.

This is what people are fleeing from, this landscape that seems to offer no future but killing or being killed. Despite their varied histories, the migrants all have in common the desire—or rather the need—to escape the violence of the drug gangs and the lack of work and opportunity in their country.

It’s 2,700 miles from San Pedro Sula to Tijuana on the US–Mexico border, and with every mile the caravan grew, eventually swelling to about 10,000 people. The head of the caravan—which was several days ahead of the tail—reached the US border in mid-November. Large camps began forming in Tijuana and Mexicali, with thousands of refugees crowding into tents, waiting to be allowed to cross the border. It looked like there would be a very long wait, since—due to a new Trump administration policy—no one would be admitted to the United States prior to a hearing at an immigration court.

Faced with the prospect of remaining in that precarious limbo for weeks, perhaps months, some migrants tried to cross the border illegally, others sought asylum in Mexico, and still others gave up and turned around. According to data from the Mexican authorities reported by the Associated Press, 1,300 migrants returned to Central America; another 2,900 received humanitarian visas from Mexico and now live there legally, with the chance to look for work (which many have already found); and 2,600 were arrested by the US Border Patrol in the San Diego area alone for crossing illegally. As of mid-January, hundreds—it’s hard to know exact numbers—were still gathered at the border, hoping to enter the United States.

The caravan had many children in it, including disabled children seeking treatment in the United States. Juan Alberto Matheu, for example, traveled thousands of miles with his daughter Lesley, who has been confined to a wheelchair since having a stroke at the age of two. At every stage of the journey, he sought out washbasins to bathe her. After reaching Tijuana and spending three weeks in a refugee camp, he eventually managed—with the help of the Minority Humanitarian Foundation—to enter the US with Lesley. After four days in ICE custody, they were released, and he was finally able to take his daughter to a hospital.

Jakelin Caal Maquin, age seven, was healthy when she left Raxruhá, Guatemala, with her father, Nery Gilberto Caal Cuz. On the evening of December 6, both were arrested, along with 161 other migrants, by the US border patrol in New Mexico, after illegally crossing the border. A few hours later, while in the custody of American border agents, Jakelin began suffering from a high fever and seizures; she was taken by helicopter to a hospital, where she died the next day from septic shock, dehydration, and liver failure. She had traveled two thousand miles, crossing the Mexican desert, enduring weeks of exhaustion and hardship to reach the US, because she knew that beyond its border she could hope for something better than the future her own country offered. She died in the very place she could have begun a new life.

Jakelin was not the first migrant child to lose her life in the United States after arriving with a caravan. In May 2018 Mariee Juárez, only twenty months old, died after being held in a detention center in Dilley, Texas. Also from Guatemala, she too entered the United States illegally, crossing the Rio Grande with her mother, Yasmin. According to Yasmin, after they were arrested and put in the detention center on March 5, sharing a single room with five mothers and their own children (several of whom were already sick), Mariee developed a cough and a high fever and kept losing weight. On March 25 they were released, and Yasmin took her daughter to the hospital, where she was diagnosed with pneumonia, adenovirus, and parainfluenza. She died six weeks later.

Are these the dangerous criminals Trump talks about? Are these the violent people against whom he has authorized soldiers to use lethal force if they deem it justified? Are these the invaders who made it necessary to close the San Ysidro Port of Entry, which connects Tijuana and San Diego, in November? Trump’s use of the caravan for political purposes is blatant: on November 4, two days before the midterm elections, he tweeted, “If you want to protect criminal aliens—VOTE DEMOCRAT. If you want to protect Law-Abiding Americans—VOTE REPUBLICAN!” In short, for Trump, you are either with Americans or with the migrants—a dichotomy that can exist only in the basest propaganda. The people of the United States ought to recognize that.

Despite Trump’s many assertions, there is no evidence that criminals or drug traffickers formed any part of the caravan. The journalists who followed it have consistently reported that it is made up of ordinary, desperate people who are not criminals but are fleeing from criminals. Making these people seem dangerous, for example by claiming that the caravan has been infiltrated by “unknown Middle Easterners,” does, however, serve Trump’s interests, because it allows him to resort to emergency measures to keep the migrants from entering or remaining in the United States. Above all it feeds the climate of fear and suspicion in which he waged his successful presidential campaign. If he convinces Americans that there is an emergency on the southern border, it will be easier to also convince them that a wall is needed there. Not getting the wall—the mantra of his campaign—would mean disappointing his base and appearing weak. It would mean letting the Democrats win, and not just on this point: Trump is staking his reelection on building the wall.

That’s why, on January 15, as soon as he heard that a new caravan had departed from Honduras, he tweeted that the policies of Democrats won’t be enough to stop the migrants; only the wall can do so. And yet, despite the harsh policies put in place by the US government in recent months, despite Trump’s menacing tweets, despite the hundreds of Central Americans still waiting in a Tijuana refugee camp for their asylum applications to be processed, and despite the US arresting illegal border crossers and repatriating thousands of people, the fact remains that a new caravan of refugees fleeing drug trafficking and gang violence is on its way. They come even knowing that, after weeks of walking, there is no assurance that they will be granted entry into the United States. Trump’s policies can do nothing to stop them from fleeing for their lives.

—February 7, 2019; translated from the Italian by Geoffrey Brock

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