SAYULA DE ALEMÀN, Mexico – Gloria Villanueva woke up at 3 a.m. Saturday in this sweaty way station near Mexico’s Gulf Coast and lined up for a bus ride. The governor of Veracruz state had promised transportation to Mexico City – 330 miles to the northeast – for the well-publicized caravan of migrants, who have walked and thumbed rides for three weeks since setting out from Honduras.
The buses never arrived.
Gov. Miguel Ángel Yunes Linares backtracked on his promise, saying in a statement that Mexico City wasn’t ready to receive 160 busloads of migrants due to water shortages in the national capital, where the waterworks are being repaired and millions of residents lack service.
But Pueblo Sin Fronteras, a migrant advocacy organization assisting the caravan, said in a statement that the organization had already prepared for the water shortage and taken precautions to receive the migrants in Mexico City.
Stuck without bus rides to the national capital and still 750 miles from Brownsville, Texas, the closest U.S. port of entry, the caravan set out on Saturday for the town of Isla, some 45 miles up the road. Villanueva begged for coins as tractor trailers and buses slowed while passing through Sayula de Alemán, hoping to pay for a bus ride.
The migrants are spread out in groups in the nearby towns of Juan Rodríguez Clara, Veracruz and Isla, Veracruz, which are about 40 miles from their previous rest stop in Sayula. Another contingent is trying to make additional headway by pushing to Tierra Blanca, Veracruz, which lies about 80 additional miles to the north, reports The Associated Press.
Yunes had offered to take the caravan to an undisclosed city in southern Veracruz state – a further distance from the U.S. border – but the migrants turned down the offer. In a 5 a.m. assembly, they voted to head for Isla instead.
The caravan has been winding its way through southern Mexico the past two weeks since fording the Suchiate River separating the country with Guatemala. It’s pushed past police blockades, endured scorching heat and torrential rains, and survived on the generosity of ordinary Mexicans, who have offered everything from free rides to hot meals to places to sleep.
The Mexican government has tried to thin out the caravan by offering its participants temporary work visas and social benefits such as healthcare and education. As the caravan moved through southern Mexico, few of the participants appear anxious to take up the offer of residency.
Few returning home
At a table set up by Mexico’s National Immigration Institute in Sayula de Alemán to assist migrants with voluntary repatriation to Central America, an official said only 14 people over the past two days had asked to return home. The official estimated size of the caravan stands at 4,000 people – though another two caravans were moving through the southern state of Chiapas on Saturday.
The governors’ offer of transportation to Mexico City wasn’t entirely altruistic and reflected the unfriendly attitudes of Mexican officials toward Central American migrants transiting illegally through Mexico – even as Mexico defends its own undocumented citizens living in the United States. Yunes told the newspaper El Universal, “We can’t receive a large number of migrants. There are already migrants in Veracruz, begging for money in the streets. It’s a serious social problem and we don’t want it to increase.”
Villanueva, 34, joined the caravan from the Honduran city of San Pedro Sula, – among the most violent places in the hemisphere – after seeing a news report on Honduran television. She has worked cleaning a pharmacy, but says she hasn’t had a job in three years – something she blamed on age discrimination as employment ads in many Latin American countries often ask for young people with an education and a “buena presentación” (good appearance).
Traveling in a caravan, she said, appealed to her as an opportunity to safely transit the length of Mexico, where the risks of the road include rape, kidnap and extortion. The caravan’s route over the next few days traverses a treacherous area known as Tierra Blanca, where drug cartel activities are commonplace and crimes committed against migrants rife.
“I’m in the caravan so I don’t get kidnapped, so immigration officers don’t grab me and deport me, she said. “I feel safety in numbers.”
Others on the caravan told similar stories as they ambled toward Tierra Blanca under cloudy skies and light drizzle, along with lower temperatures in the high 70s.
“We’re not worried if we travel together,” said Carlos Funes, 62, a father of nine and a farmhand from northern Honduras, who left working on a palm oil plantation because he couldn’t make ends meet.
“There’s always been poverty in Honduras, but not extreme poverty like now,” he said, repeating a sentiment often heard among caravan travelers who say the rising cost of living and stagnant salaries are causing many Hondurans to migrate.
Sleeping through rain showers
Caravan participants spent a second consecutive night of sleeping through rain showers, which left their scant possessions soaked. Parents pushed children in strollers along the highway, pleading for rides from passing motorists, as young men clung to slow-moving-semis – including a trailer hauling live chickens.
Funes, with his weathered skin and wearing well-worn sandals and toting a backpack with a change of clothes, a plastic tarp, a blanket and a Bible, set out on foot.
“I prefer to suffer on the road than see my family suffer,” he said. “The goal is to reach the U.S. border,” he said. “We don’t know if we’ll enter.”
President Donald Trump, who has spoken out repeatedly against the caravan as a midterm elections campaign issue, has portrayed the caravan as an invasion and vowed to let migrants enter the United States. He has ordered 5,000 troops to the border – and said he would raise it to 15,000 if needed – and said soldiers would “fight back” in response to rocks being thrown at them by migrants. He later clarified those comments, saying he hoped “they won’t have to fire.”Funes didn’t seem deterred, saying, “Donald Trump and any other government has never stopped immigration.”
But Villanueva expressed some concern with stories of the military presence threat.
“I worry for others in the caravan. You have all kinds of people here,” she said. “The government in the United States is very strong. But we have to try it.”
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