Thousands of migrants set out from southern Mexico last week in one of the largest caravans seeking to reach the United States in recent years. The mass movement coincided with a recent meeting in Los Angeles of leaders from the Western Hemisphere, where migration was a key focus.
Although migrant caravans have become a common occurrence and are usually dispersed by authorities long before they reach the southern border of the United States, the latest march of some 6,000 people walking along Mexican highways has attracted significant international attention.
Many migrants came from Venezuela and had already traveled hundreds of kilometers through the jungle and crossed several borders before arriving in Mexico. Once in Mexico, a migrant is usually required to stay in the southern town of Tapachula until Mexican authorities grant a humanitarian visa to travel further, a process that can take months.
“Tapachula has become a giant prison for migrants,” said Luis García Villagrán, spokesperson 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 pay human traffickers, many of whom have ties to organized crime, or bribe immigration officials to speed up the process, García said in an interview. telephone.
Still others are trying to circumvent the Mexican visa process and join groups heading north, he said, believing their large numbers will make it harder for Mexican authorities to halt their advance.
A spokeswoman for Mexico’s National Institute for Migration said efforts were being made to provide migrants with legal documents in Tapachula.
“A good part of those who make up the caravan already have documents,” spokeswoman Natalia Gómez Quintero said.
Yet the Mexican National Guard, as shown in the photo below, is often sent in to stem the flow of migrants north.
Stories of mistreatment of migrants are commonplace. A Human Rights Watch report released last week found that “migrants and asylum seekers who enter Mexico through its southern border face abuse and struggle to obtain protection or legal status.”
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Last year, Mexico apprehended more than 300,000 migrants – the highest number on record, according to Human Rights Watch, while more than 130,000 people sought asylum in the country. Such numbers have “overwhelmed” the Mexican asylum system, according to the report.
The presence of many Venezuelans in the caravan follows a shift in Mexico’s policy towards migrants from the South American nation, which has been consumed by political and economic crises. Since January, Venezuelans have required visas to enter Mexico, a rule many try to circumvent by crossing in groups at land borders rather than by plane.
Below, Rusbeli Martínez pushed a shopping cart alongside 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 says, they found a harsh welcome and little work.
“We lived in an area where crime was high – they threatened us to leave,” Ms Martínez said. “Otherwise they would burn the house down.”
Many Venezuelans seeking a better existence have taken a difficult overland route, including walking across the Darien Gap, a dangerous, roadless stretch of jungle in eastern Panama and northwestern Colombia. In the first five months of the year, more than 32,000 migrants, including more than 16,000 Venezuelans, made the crossing, according to Panama’s National Migration Service.
Eduardo Colmenares Pérez, a Venezuelan migrant who crossed the breach with his son and pregnant wife, said bandits stole all their belongings. “They left us with no money, no food, no clothes, nothing.”
Young men make up a large number of people in the caravan, but there are also many families with children. About 3,000 miners traveled 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 young people were singing.
Most caravan members are poor and hope 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 road.
Below, Maiquel Tejada, Yeider Rodríguez and Jesús Rangel come together during a break in the caravan’s journey. “In Venezuela, and in the neighborhoods of Caracas, we are not accepted,” said Rodríguez, center. “We have to repress ourselves, pretend to be something that we are not.”
Others said they were persecuted because they were foreigners. Yuliet Mora and her family left Venezuela and moved to Colombia and later to Peru. But she said they were forced to leave because of xenophobia. In the first photo below, Ms Mora sits in a makeshift tent at Álvaro Obregón.
Roselys Guetiérrez and María Gómez, pictured second below, are Venezuelans who lived in Colombia but left after they said they were attacked for holding hands on the street in Bogotá.
“We decided to go through the jungle – it was quite difficult,” Ms Gutiérrez said. “I’m quite traumatized because of everything I’ve been through in the jungle, everything we’ve been through. But thank God, I’m here hoping for something better.
Some migrants decided to leave the caravan after Mexican immigration officials in the city of Huixtla, in the state of Chiapas, granted them temporary permits allowing them to transit freely from the country to the border for 30 days, according to Mr. García, the caravan’s spokesman. Other migrants decided to drop off the caravan entirely, exhausted from a trek that usually means walking for miles each day, often in scorching sun or torrential rain.
Mexico is fraught with trouble, especially from organized crime groups that are known to kidnap migrants and hold them for ransom, often paid by relatives in the United States. The caravan offers some security in numbers, but Mexican authorities have been known to disperse caravans by force.
Below, Venezuelan migrants stood on the roof of a migrant detention center in Tapachula following an uprising which migrants say was caused by poor sanitary conditions, lack of food, overcrowding and delays in migration and the processing of asylum claims.
“We are not criminals,” said migrant Valentina Alfonso, left, in the second photo below. She said her uncle had been detained by Mexican authorities for several days. “We are professionals, we have our careers, our studies,” Ms. Alfonso said. “It’s inhumane.”
With temperatures reaching 100 degrees, the caravan usually starts well before dawn. Below, a Venezuelan migrant pushes another migrant in a wheelchair as the caravan travels through the night.
Mr. Colmenares, who had been in Mexico for five days after crossing the Darién Gap, often had to rely on the generosity of other migrants for food.
“I feel enraged, helpless, because I had to leave my country,” he said.
A US official said the Department of Homeland Security was monitoring the progress of the caravan, but suggested that migrants making the journey on foot often failed to reach the border.
Despite the difficulties, Mr. Colmenares said he was only thinking of the road ahead. “What motivates me to keep walking is to pursue my American dream,” he said. “To give my son a better future.”
Bryan Avelar contributed report.