Thousands of migrants set off from southern Mexico last week in one of the largest caravans attempting to reach the United States in recent years. The mass movement coincided with a recent gathering of leaders from the Western Hemisphere in Los Angeles that focused on migration.
Although migrant caravans have become a widespread phenomenon and are usually broken up by authorities well before they reach the US southern border, the recent march of about 6,000 people walking along Mexican highways has attracted significant international attention.
Many of the migrants came from Venezuela and had already trekked hundreds of kilometers through the jungle and across several borders before arriving in Mexico. Once a migrant arrives in Mexico, they are usually required to remain in the southern city of Tapachula until Mexican authorities issue a humanitarian visa for onward travel, which can take months.
“Tapachula has become a huge prison for migrants,” said Luis García Villagrán, a spokesman for the caravan. “The Mexican authorities have a knot, a bureaucratic fence, a bureaucratic wall, obviously under pressure from the United States.”
Rather than languish in Tapachula, some migrants are either paying traffickers, many of whom have links to organized crime, or bribing immigration officials to speed up the process, Mr García said in a phone interview.
Still others are attempting to bypass Mexico’s visa process and join the groups heading north, he said, because they believe their large numbers will make it harder for Mexican authorities to stop their advance.
A spokeswoman for Mexico’s National Institute for Migration said efforts are being made to provide migrants in Tapachula with legal documentation.
“A large part of the caravan members already have documents,” said spokeswoman Natalia Gómez Quintero.
Nonetheless, as seen in the photo below, the Mexican National Guard is often dispatched to stem the flow of migrants north.
Stories of mistreatment of migrants are common. A Human Rights Watch report released last week found that “migrants and asylum-seekers entering through Mexico’s southern border face abuse and struggle to obtain protection or legal status.”
Last year, Mexico detained more than 300,000 migrants — the highest number on record, according to Human Rights Watch, while more than 130,000 people have sought asylum in the country. Those numbers have “overwhelmed” Mexico’s asylum system, the report said.
The presence of many Venezuelans in the caravan follows a change in Mexico’s policy toward migrants from the South American nation that has been consumed by political and economic crises. Since January, Venezuelans have required visas to enter Mexico, a rule many are trying to circumvent by crossing land borders in large groups rather than flying.
Below, Rusbeli Martínez pushed a shopping cart next to her son and other family members. After leaving Venezuela years ago, the family lived in Colombia, home to around 1.7 million Venezuelan migrants. But in Colombia, she said, they found a tough welcome and little work.
“We lived in an area with a lot of crime – they threatened us that we should leave,” Ms Martínez said. “Otherwise they would burn down the house.”
Many Venezuelans seeking a better life have taken a difficult overland route, including traversing the Darién Gap, a treacherous, roadless strip of jungle in eastern Panama and northwestern Colombia. In the first five months of the year, more than 32,000 migrants, including over 16,000 Venezuelans, crossed the border, according to Panama’s National Migration Service.
Eduardo Colmenares Pérez, a Venezuelan migrant who crossed the gap with his son and pregnant wife, said bandits stole all their belongings. “They left us with no money, no food, no clothes, nothing.”
There are many young men in the caravan, but also many families with children. About 3,000 minors were in the group, according to the United Nations Children’s Fund. Below, in a park in the town of Álvaro Obregón, a child was playing while other youths sang.
Most of the caravan are poor and hoping for better opportunities in the United States. But some are also fleeing violence and persecution, including a group of LGBTQ migrants who described the discrimination they faced in Venezuela and on the streets.
Maiquel Tejada, Yeider Rodríguez and Jesús Rangel gathered below during a lull in the caravan’s journey. “We are not accepted in Venezuela and in the neighborhoods of Caracas,” said Mr. Rodríguez, center. “We have to suppress ourselves, pretend we are something we are not.”
Others said they were persecuted because they were outsiders. Yuliet Mora and her family left Venezuela for Colombia and later Peru. But she said they were forced to leave because of xenophobia. In the first photo below, Ms. Mora is sitting under a makeshift tent in Álvaro Obregón.
Roselys Guetiérrez and María Gómez, in the second photo below, are Venezuelans who used to live in Colombia but left after saying they were attacked for holding hands in the street in Bogotá.
“We decided to come through the jungle – it was pretty tough,” Ms. Gutiérrez said. “I’m pretty traumatized by everything I’ve been through in the jungle, everything we’ve been through. But thank God I’m hoping for something better here.”
Some migrants decided to leave the caravan after Mexican immigration officials in the city of Huixtla, Chiapas state, gave them temporary permits allowing them to cross the country freely towards the border for 30 days, according to Mr García, the caravan’s spokesman. Other migrants chose to abandon the caravan altogether, exhausted from a trek that usually means walking miles each day, often in the scorching sun or torrential rain.
Mexico is fraught with dangers, particularly from organized crime groups known for kidnapping migrants and holding them for ransom, often paid by relatives in the United States. The caravan offers some security in numbers, but Mexican authorities have a history of using force to disperse caravans.
Below, Venezuelan migrants stand on the roof of an immigration detention center in Tapachula after a riot that migrants said was caused by poor sanitation, lack of food, overcrowding and delays in migration and asylum processing.
“We are not criminals,” said one migrant, Valentina Alfonso, left in the second photo below. She said her uncle was held by Mexican authorities for several days. “We are professionals, we have our careers, our studies,” said Ms. Alfonso. “That is inhuman.”
With temperatures of up to 100 degrees, the caravan usually sets off long before sunrise. Below, a Venezuelan migrant pushed another migrant in a wheelchair as the caravan traveled through the night.
Mr. Colmenares, who was in Mexico for five days after crossing the Darién Gap, often had to rely on the generosity of fellow migrants for food.
“I feel angry, powerless, because I had to leave my country,” he said.
Despite the difficulties, Mr Colmares said he was only thinking of the road ahead. “What motivates me to keep going is the quest for my American dream,” he said. “To give my son a better future.”
Bryan Avelar contributed reporting.
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