The Story of a Spontaneous March of Thousands of Refugees from Central America to the US border. From Its Beginning to Gunshots and Spilled Blood.
His name is Rafael Isaac Psota Aguilar. He’s 33.
Dark, weather-beaten skin, a short beard. A disarming smile. Silvery, newish crutches.
Rafael was born in Honduras with hip dysplasia. The town is called Ocotepeque, on the border with Guatemala and El Salvador. “Safe, but poor.”
“There are ten of us,” says Rafael. There were 11. 8 brothers, 3 sisters. One of his brothers died of cancer. Rafael calls his older sister Mama. His real mother died when Rafael was 15.
He started working at 14. He worked in the fields: corn, beans, yucca, lettuce, onions, cucumbers, the local spinach variety.
Work is a luxury even for healthy people. Rafael trained his whole childhood to get work. Walking was his main sport.
To find work, he had to move to San Pedro Sula. “Richer, but very dangerous.” Local gangs stole his pay more than just once or twice.
Two of Rafael’s older brothers and one younger were living in the USA. They crossed the border – illegally, of course. Sometimes they talked on the phone. “America was my dream,” says Rafael.
One of his best friends was Josia Alexander, nicknamed Mecha – “the Fuse.” He shared Rafael’s dream. They studied the railway map and made a plan.
When Rafael saw news on TV about a huge caravan setting off for the USA, he knew at once that his chance had come. He prayed.
When Mecha found out about the caravan, he hit the bottle. Rafael went alone. His neighbors said he was crazy and wouldn’t even make it to the next town. But Rafael had been training his whole childhood and knew for sure he could get to the next town.
The first four days he walked faster than anyone. Then he started falling behind. He got through half of Guatemala on his crutches. Sometimes cars picked him up. Several municipalities provided buses. The bus from Arriaga took Rafael 40 kilometers, and he recalls those 40 kilometers as the easiest part of the trip.
The hardest part came just outside Santa Rosa. The place was called Martyra-Romero. They had walked all day and were sleeping by the side of the road. It started raining, then storming. Rafael wrapped himself in a blanket and covered his face with his hands to keep water from running into his eyes.
“I woke up and knew I was dying.”
The water made the blanket so heavy there was no way he could remove it.
That day he covered 15 kilometers.
He was already in Mexico before setting eyes on a wheelchair. At that moment, two Miguels were walking beside him, one from Honduras, the other from Guatemala. Serious young men.
They pushed the wheelchair.
“I felt strange at first,” says Rafael. “I was embarrassed. Then a priest – he was walking along with us – told me: ‘God always sends angels to help us on our way.’”
From Mexicali to Tijuana, the last stage of the trip, the road climbs a mountain. The two Miguels pushed the wheelchair. Rafael prayed. And a car pulled up. And drove him over the mountain.
“I’m happy because I was able to do it. I’m almost there,” says Rafael. He will ask for asylum. He will look for work. He is very optimistic.
“I rely on God,” Rafael says, “No way he’d give us strength to get here for no good reason.”
The “migrant caravan,” a march of thousands to the US border, left the Honduran city of San Pedro Sula on October 12th. There were 160 people when it started. A caravan is the safest way to migrate through the “northern triangle” (El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras), where gangs control the roads. Caravans like this set off for the USA several times a year, quietly, without making too much noise. But information about this caravan showed up on Facebook, and then in the news. In every town, more people joined. They came in droves from El Salvador and Nicaragua. The caravan divided and merged again. After a month and seven days, the caravan reached Mexican Tijuana, got to the US border, and stopped in front of the wall. Three countries and 4500 kilometers lay behind them.
Today the caravan is estimated to be from 7 to 10 thousand. They’re mostly peasants, workers from haciendas. A third of the caravan is younger than 18.
US President Trump called what’s happening at the US border an invasion and sent troops.
San Diego ranks fifth among US cities in real estate value. Prosperity is diffused through the air, mixed with cold light.
San Diego is getting ready for Thanksgiving. Inflated turkeys fly along the streets. The city undergoes endless construction and reconstruction – hotels, high-rise apartments, restaurants, cheap labor from abroad. Support here for Trump and his call to arms is pretty weak. Popular opinion holds that the caravan story was “blown out of proportion” by the Congressional election campaign.
“Democrats and Republicans were fighting for seats and decided to heat the situation up in the media, play on people’s fears to make conservative voters turn out and vote,” says local journalist John Cohen. “Well, things got out of hand. The more the media got involved, the more people found out the caravan was coming through their country. And they joined it. It turns out we brought this caravan into being.”
The Congressional elections took place on November 6th. And where Trump had been writing five tweets a day about the caravan before the election, now he nearly stopped. This is matter for endless jokes.
They’re not seriously dealing with an “invasion.” They believe the borders are secure. Caravans, although not always so massive, are constantly arriving at the border. Last year about a thousand Haitians came up to the American wall. A few got asylum. The rest stayed in Mexico, opened cafes, hair salons, and became completely integrated.
Talk in San Diego is not so much about the caravan as about Trump’s latest claim that “unknown Middle Easterners” are trying to blend in with the caravan and get into the USA. “Has he even looked at a map? If they wanted to make trouble for us, they’d fly to New York, but even so, the troops are all stationed on the border.”
Meanwhile the Otay Mesa Detention Center is urgently releasing people in expectation of new migrants. Every day, they free 80 to 100 people detained earlier for breaking immigration laws. They get dropped off, wearing ankle bracelets, near churches. Local volunteers collect them.
“Two busloads every day, 100 people. These people, first of all, frequently have nowhere to go. Second, they’re required to register their place of residence. Most likely, they’ll be judged and deported as soon as the authorities sort out the caravan, but now they’re happy they can see their families and find work. It’s awfully cynical,” says Marie Cardesas, an elementary school teacher and volunteer. Among those released are the parents of her students.
Ranchland begins closer to the border. The odor of manure and dust. School kids ride over the desert on horseback. Behind them appear soldiers on horseback – the border patrol. Right above the border there are three helicopters and two drones. A few boats with American border agents bob in the sea. The wall that divides America from Mexico is made of metal pickets, thickly wound with concertina wire. You can see Mexican border agents walking up and down behind it.
Several new rolls of concertina wire lie in front of the wall. A wooden podium with an eagle stands next to them. We’re awaiting a visit from Kirstjen Nielsen, US Secretary of Homeland Security. Earlier there were rumors of her imminent resignation – Trump doesn’t like that Kirstjen, the daughter of a Dane and an Italian, isn’t fighting immigration decisively enough.
“First she’ll pass in front of the fence, then she’ll look out to sea,” her press secretary explains.
Her visit has a lamentable pretext: Judge Tigar of San Francisco has blocked Trump’s “caravan” order not to consider asylum requests from illegal border crossers.
“It’s a dangerous ruling and… will undoubtedly be overturned,” Kirstjen tells the journalists. Six horsemen have formed up behind her. “We will… be appealing as quickly as possible. I have no doubt that we will be successful.
“The majority in the caravan are not women and children, but young men,” says Kiersten, “We have identified over 500 criminals to include known gang members…. This is not an organic flow of migrants! This administration will not tolerate frivolous asylum claims or illegal entry…. The DHS [Department of Homeland Security] and the administration will continue to take all possible actions to stop the caravan from entering the United States illegally.”
Kirstjen thanks the soldiers and their families profusely. No one sees the soldiers themselves (there are 5600 along the entire border). According to the border patrol (right in front of us), the soldiers will not, of course, be patrolling the border. Army engineers are inspecting and strengthening the wall. The military police are bored. The soldiers complain that they’re not receiving combat pay for serving on the border and that they’re spending Thanksgiving, the most important American holiday, far from their families.
The great American wall stretches over a third of the 3000-kilometer border between Mexico and the USA. It was built starting here, in Tijuana, the westernmost point on the border.
The wall is relatively new. The first real barrier between San Diego and Tijuana was erected in 1994. At first, instead of a fence, a row of steel plates (Vietnam War-era helicopter landing pads)standing on end was put in place. Ten years ago a second fence was erected parallel to the first. The fence is wound with concertina wire and extends out into the ocean. A network of sensors and cameras reveals any movement between the two fence lines.
The space is called “Friendship Park.”
Up to now, border agents would open the gates on both sides once a year and allow family members separated by the border to embrace one another. The embraces could go on for just three minutes, and you had to sign up in advance.
But every Saturday (also after standing in line) it was possible to walk right up to the Mexican fence and talk through the bars. The fence here is hung with micromesh, but you can touch your child’s fingers through the netting. All this has stopped with the caravan’s arrival.
After Kirstjen’s departure, the park empties out. Workers stretch out the extra concertina wire. Student sociologist Cassandra Chamberlain and her friend John (both from Los Angeles) try walking up to the fence, but one shout from a border agent is enough to send them back to their previous position.
“I’m a Christian first and foremost,” says Cassandra. “And if I need to help, I will.”
They’ve brought jam and muesli from Los Angeles and now they don’t know how to get it over the border. “Throw it? That’s not right.”
Cassandra peers at a woman holding flowers and waving at her.
“Should we write something?” her friend asks.
They decide to write “Lo siento” – “Sorry – in Cassandra’s notebook.
“Do you see that hill? There are three bunkers under it. They were dug out during the Second World War. After Pearl Harbor they were expecting a Japanese invasion. We don’t go there. We don’t have any idea what they do there.”
Patrol officer Daniel is 49. He’s on duty today until midnight. In three months, in February, he’ll turn 50 and he’s going to retire. He’s relaxed and doesn’t share the media panic. This is normal work.
“Every night they come across. Sometimes five, sometimes fifty. There are cameras all over here, and naturally they get caught, but some get away. Some cross over on boats. With the caravan it’s easier. Many of them give themselves up. Request asylum. We check their fingerprints to see if they’re criminals and decide which prison to send them to.
“My parents moved here from Mexico when I was 5. I started working fresh out of the army. It’s not ideal, but I didn’t expect it would be. I just needed to support my wife and daughter. And I never got welfare [a social allowance for the needy – E.K.], I didn’t ask for unemployment, I did everything on my own. We have people who live for years in subsidized housing, watch subsidized TV, and eat subsidized chips. Do I like it? No.
“Like my dad, I can understand them. But if you cross the border, you’re breaking the law. And without laws it’ll be a lot worse here than in Mexico. Here, you shouldn’t listen to your heart. If you knock on my door and want to eat and I don’t give you anything and you break into my house, you’re a criminal. If you rob a bank because you don’t have anything to live on, you’re a criminal.
“I’ve served under four presidents. Under six, if you count my army service. Believe me, it’s always been like this. Trump just doesn’t know how to talk nice, or doesn’t want to, but in reality everything’s the same.”
Mexican Tijuana spreads out along the wall. The wall plunges down hills, stretches along the highway, disappears toward the horizon. On the hill slopes, shacks made of asbestos sheeting and boards neighbor southern stone villas.
American retirees come here to live. This is where young people from San Francisco come to chill out. It’s also an American industrial center, with factories belonging to Sony, Samsung, Dell, Kodak, Siemens, Philips, Microsoft, General Motors, Ford, Toyota, Volkswagen, BMW… They produce computers and telephones, assemble airplanes, make cement and jam. Cheap labor, proximity to the border, and Tijuana’s much more liberal labor law have practically obliterated industry within the USA. And it’s the impoverished American working class that elected Trump.
Everyone trying to enter the USA from the south ends up in Tijuana. San Ysidro, the crossing between American San Diego and Mexican Tijuana, has the highest traffic of any border station in the world. 90,000 people cross through it every day. The border is strict only in one direction. If you’re going to Mexico, no one checks your papers.
On the Mexican side, a tattered tent stands in front of the futuristic Port of Entry building. Volunteers selected from the most recent caravan are recording names in a notebook. This is where the line forms to get into the terminal and ask the border officers for asylum.
Right now there are 14,000 people in line. Over the last 15 days, 1200 have made it into the terminal for an appointment with immigration officers. All of them had signed up long before the caravan. The first members of the caravan are looking at waiting at least a month. The pace of admission is set by the border service. At the moment, riding the wave of attention, they take 80 people a day. Sometimes they don’t take anyone – for weeks.
By law, there shouldn’t be a line for asylum: any person can seek safety immediately. But immigrants who have tried to bypass the line are thought to be “rejecting solidarity.” Once border agents have heard a request for asylum, they must allow petitioners to see an immigration officer. The immigration officer is first to decide whether a person merits asylum. Within a week, a judge must confirm or deny the request. But an asylum seeker usually doesn’t even make it to court.
Tijuana, in contrast to San Diego, is very much disturbed by the caravan.
Javier Fernández, a customs official:
“They smoke grass, get into fights. There are lots of gangs. You can see it in their eyes. We’re not racists. We’re very friendly. But not toward them.”
“They’re murderers. Just look at them and it’s clear,” Ramiros, the owner of a tea shop next to the border, seconds him.
Police are working undercover throughout the city. The shady side of Tijuana is controlled by two gangs: “New Generation” and “Cartel del Golfo.” Each has enough street thugs, but the police are afraid the caravan will become an excellent resource for the gangs and they’ll take the street war to a new level.
In the city, people tell how the members of the caravan refuse to eat beans, the traditional Mexican food, and call them “slop for hogs.” Many people are convinced the caravan is being paid by Trump, or the “global government,” or leftist Mexican politicians. They even specify how much – 300-400 dollars for a Honduran (“Hondurans are most willing to sell themselves”). A migrant who tore up a Mexican flag on camera has already become proverbial. 200 people who came with the caravan were arrested in a two-week period.
Tension is also rising because the federal government hasn’t spent a peso on the caravan. Soldiers were sent from Mexico City to feed the refugees, along with federal police with experience breaking up mass demonstrations.
Last Monday, the first nationalist gathering in the history of Tijuana took place. It was organized by a local right-winger, Ivan Riebeling, who calls himself Comandante Cobra. He asked residents to help defend women and children, naturally. He called for using “non-lethal weapons” – beatings, rubber bullets, and salt cartridges – to make the migrants go back to their own countries. He also appealed to the narcotics cartels: “You are God’s people, taking care of your own land, and the Lord will tell you what to do.”
“Well, you know, there were videos of those morons, and I recognized my friend’s son,“ says psychotherapist Gilberto Ziginda. “I don’t know how to tell him. How to relate to them in general.”
“I don’t recognize my own city,” says his wife Patricia, a doctor.
Patricia, Gilberto, and the leaders of several volunteer organizations are meeting in a community center, La Casa del Centro, in order to discuss how to arrange aid for the caravan. Volunteers from Mexico City appear on Skype; the caravan is still going. Activists from Los Angeles appear on Skype; twenty doctors and nurses are planning to come at the end of the week and help with initial examinations, at least.
“It makes me furious that while the caravan was on its way, we were discussing it every day with bureaucrats – how to feed them, how to treat them, we defined various duties,” says Darinka from the organization Coaia. “And in the end they just drove them into the stadium, out in the open.
“Our city is historically a city of migrants, we should have protocols for working with them. But we don’t have anything. We are not passing the humanity test.”
Benito Juarez Stadium
There are no more than 30 shelters in the city for members of the caravan. The stadium is one, and the only municipal shelter. Toward the end of November 4731 people were living in the stadium without a roof over their heads: 2066 men, 904 women, 418 boys, and 444 girls.
Orange bracelets allow access to the stadium. A heavy odor of unwashed bodies. About twenty toilets, a few showers, open-air; people wash up in their clothes, surrounded by sodden muck.
There are tents for those whose relatives have wired money. The rest just arrange their belongings right on the spot: they hammer sticks into the stadium ground, stretch out polyethylene sheets and blankets. The best places, between the grandstand and the stadium field, are stuffed with mattresses. The first to arrive live there: women with children and muscular young men with tattoos.
A cough hovers over the stadium. At night, the temperature drops to 10 degrees. The rainy season begins in a month. There’s a feeling that Tijuana would literally be letting the grass grow under its feet, if it weren’t all trampled.
Regina Caseano came to Tijuana with her daughter Elison. She’s from the city of Santa Rita. Her eldest son lives with his father in the USA (they got asylum after witnessing a murder). Her three youngest boys remained at home. “I had to save my daughter, first of all. It’s 6 kilometers to school. I take her there, but she walks back alone. Three boys were raped on that road just in the last year.”
Elison is a straight-A student. She draws pictures of fruit on a plastic plate and carefully labels each in English.
Regina earned a living sorting bananas. “Chiquita” bananas for the USA. They had to be completely green, flawless, without scratches, from 20 to 23 centimeters. The rest were for “Amigo.” Bananas were brought at 5:30am, her shift started at 7:30am. They worked until 6 in the evening, 11 hours, with one day off a week (except for March and April, when there were no days off at all). Regina sorted 4000 bananas a day. She earned 1600 Honduran lempiras a week (4200 rubles). It was a very, very good job.
Regina left home without money. She took the most important things – photos, bracelets from the maternity ward for each of her children, and a few trinkets: “My husband gave me this when we first met, this is from my sister, this I bought the first time I was paid. They’re my memories, they cheer me up.”
Her number in the asylum line is 15,940.
Emanuel Garcia, 32. He’s from the small town of Nacaome. He worked as a TV announcer, had a radio program, worked as a carpenter, peddled fruit. He shows his calluses from the cart. Alongside his work, he served as pastor for the last twelve years in a local church. He was one of the people who started the caravan.
In March, parishioners from his church were murdered. “A large family of small businessmen.” Fourteen people, a small shop. “They refused to pay protection. We have to pay 50-100 lempiras (130-270 rubles) every day for the privilege of working, depending on what we make.” The bandits shot everyone in the house, ten or so, including a three-month-old child. Four survivors had to flee to another city.
“Not that this is an unusual story,” says Emanuel. “It was just the last straw.”
He says of the caravan: “I didn’t expect this, of course. And I didn’t expect the trip to be so brutal.”
No one has yet made a list of this caravan’s dead. Emanuel names his own people. Juan José Gómez, 28, Honduras. Tried to get into the back of a truck. Grabbed hold of some pipes at the back, the pipes gave way, he fell. The following car ran over his head. Henri Díaz Rayas, 26 – a gas grenade launched by the Mexican police struck him in the head. The most frightening crossing he remembers was over the Suchiate River between Guatemala and Mexico on October 28th. The police started shooting gas grenades into the crowd. One of the grenades landed in a baby carriage.
The Mexican Secretariat of Foreign Affairs adds more names: Herman Ramírez Rivera (25, fell from a moving truck), Melvin Joshua Gómez Escobar (21, fell from the back of a truck), Darwin Donaldo Castro Sambrano (17, hung himself in the Tapachula city shelter), Óscar Mauxdiel Cruz Alcerro (17, hit by a car during the last leg of the journey from Mexicali to Tijuana; his older sister went back home). The name of the most recent to die, a 17-year-old guy who committed suicide last Thursday, already in Tijuana, is being withheld by both caravan members and the authorities. The authorities are waiting for autopsy results (for now, they’re using the word “intoxication”). Members of the caravan are, it seems, ashamed: “They killed his whole family back home, his parents and brother. He talked about death the whole way. Of course we supported him as best we could. But we did it poorly.”
There are even more whose names Emanuel doesn’t know. Old men who didn’t wake up in the morning. A man who pushed a woman out of the way of a car and got run over. More than two hundred people have simply disappeared while the caravan has been on the move.
People in beige vests move confidently around the camp. They are from the MORENA Party, the party of new Mexican president Andrés Manuel López Obrador. The president takes office on December 1st.
“We are working hard to find you jobs,” says Servando Hurtado. “We take the position of helping, we're humanitarians! There are at least 5000 openings in railroad construction. At the moment half of what's been planned has been built.”
The planned railroad passes through the southern state of Chiapas, where a war of position has been going on for twenty years between indigenous people and anarchists on one side, and farmers and government troops on the other.
The Playing Field
Friday evening, the tail end of the caravan caught up from Mexicali. Open space in the stadium disappears before your eyes. 5600 people find themselves squeezed into it.
Carlos Mendez, Maria Sánchez, Michele and nine-year old Vismary can't even set their backpacks down on the ground. There's utter exhaustion in their eyes. They fled after gang members tried to find out whether they had relatives in the USA. If a family has relatives, they kidnap one of its members and demand a ransom.
Their family is from the town of El Jaral.
“We built an airport there. Let me help with your bags.”
Elias Brown Hammond commutes four hours every day to Tijuana from Long Beach in America. He brings things, diapers, food. He's 83.
“Being American doesn't make us supermen. We all live the same life. I remember the Berlin Wall. I never thought I'd see something like this. This wall says to the whole world: We're weak, we're desperate, we can't do anything. Our policies shouldn't be against people. I'll never agree to this. I'm thinking about just leaving America and living somewhere else.”
Elias served 30 years in the army. A professional soldier, sniper, instructor, he graduated from the Military Academy at West Point, New York. “First Vietnam. Then Honduras, Panama, Nicaragua, Guatemala, Costa Rica, El Salvador. I was in Yugoslavia for 72 hours when we stopped bombing.”
He's not ashamed of his past: “Everything was different then. War, values, everything.”
“Central America was our playing field. We trained the Hondurans to overthrow Ortega. Nicaragua's army was built by Americans. We owe them a lot.”
Caravan members joke: “For the USA, our borders have never been a problem.” In Honduras alone, the Americans landed in 1903, 1907, 1911, 1912, 1919, 1924, and 1925.
But problems were usually solved by political influence, money, weapons, and raising and training local armies. Since the beginning of the 20th century, the USA has made active use of the most important resource these countries possess – land. An ideal climate permitted low-input agriculture. When the land was exhausted, you could move on to a new place by clearing the jungle.
The most glaring example is the United Fruit Company – UFC, or El Pulpo (“The Octopus”), as the people call it. It owned not just extensive lands in Central America, Colombia, Ecuador, and the Carribean, but also railways, highways, and communication lines. Presidents of Guatemala and Honduras who tried to nationalize the company's land, push for agrarian reform, or pass labor laws ended up being deposed.
The American political elite melded with UFC almost to the point of being indistinguishable. Banana plantations were defended by the CIA and the US Air Force; the media playbook after every conflict was drawn up by White House specialists together with PR men for the banana companies. As American journalist Rich Cohen writes in his book The Fish that Ate the Whale, John Foster Dulles, who had represented UFC during a decisive settlement with Guatemalan bureaucrats in the 1930s, was Secretary of State under Eisenhower; his brother Allen, who sat on the company's board of directors, headed the CIA; Henry Cabot Lodge, the American ambassador to the UN, was an important stock holder in UFC; Ed Whitman, public relations head for UFC, was married to Ann Whitman, Dwight Eisenhower's personal secretary. “You could not see these connections until you could – then you could not stop seeing them.”
UFC became the prototype for the banana company that made Macondo rich and then gunned down the strikers in Márquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude. On December 6, 1928, Colombian soldiers opened fire on UFC's striking workers. A month later, the US ambassador in Bogota, Jefferson Caffery, informed Washington: “I have the honor to report... that the total number of strikers killed by the Colombian military... exceeded 1000.” In Márquez's novel, after the shooting, it began to rain for five years, then the whole thing was over. In reality, UFC, after changing its name twice, was forced to leave Bogota only in 2004, for financing militias and for bringing three thousand AK-47s into the country on one of its ships.
The company is currently called Chiquita Brands International. That’s precisely who Regina Caseano and many other refugees who came with the caravan work for. The latest breaking scandal is over payments to Colombian gangs on the US list of terrorist organizations. The company was fined 25 million dollars. These days, the company makes 3 billion dollars a year and has two headquarters, one in Switzerland and one in Florida.
It’s no surprise that leftist ideas took root in these lands. The USSR supported some politicians, the USA supported others.
The Cold War was very hot here. In El Salvador, 75,000 people died in the course of battles between the military government and leftist guerrillas from 1979-1992. Civil war in Guatemala took 200,000 lives from 1960-1996. There was no civil war in Honduras, but the neighboring conflicts resounded there. The country served as a base for the American-backed “contras,” rightist insurgent groups fighting against Nicaragua’s insufficiently rightist government in the 80s.
War gave birth to “a large pool of demobilized and unemployed men with easy access to weapons,” writes the American Council on Foreign Relations.
Every war gave rise to mass migrations – to the very same America. MS-13, the formidable gang that terrorizes the region, was founded in Los Angeles in the 80s by refugees from the Salvadoran civil war. In the 90s, mass US deportations of immigrants with criminal records sent them back home, where they started taking over new turf.
In the morning, Trump said if border security couldn’t be maintained, he would completely shut down the border with Mexico.
At noon, 200 people left the camp. They raised two homemade flags on poles – a pink shirt and a white sheet with “The world and God are with us” inscribed on it. And they headed for the border.
“They’re exercising, nasty pests,” one police officer said to another.
They were practically marching. The police cut off traffic behind them, and people went out into the lanes. But as they approached the border they began to slow down. The crowd grew thinner at every step. “Fuckers!” those who kept going shouted at the deserters.
Etien pushes a cart. He has a bruise under his right eye. He had a fight on the road to Tijuana with members of the gang Street 18. Etien is MS-13. They even drew knives, but agreed on fists.
Etien had long hair, like many of his comrades, but cut it off to blend in with the caravan. He proudly displays his tattoos – doves, tears, “forgive me, Mama.” Mama lives in Charlottesville, VA. She left to make money when Etien was 10. Etien has already been to the USA twice. The first time, he followed his mother, at 15. They detained him crossing the border, sent him to juvenile detention. His uncle got him out two months later. He lived in the USA for five years, went to an American school. He was deported for driving under the influence of narcotics and without a license.
Two years later, Etien crossed the border again. He worked: he assembled tables in a factory with his mother. Again, he drove without a license. Again, he was caught and then sent away, again.
“I did stupid things. But isn’t starting a new life what matters? I’m ready to start all over again.”
Etien tells about “the life left behind.” The gang has its own career ladder: “sparo,” “oservatio,” “check,” homboy,” “oldjeez.”
Etien says that in order to achieve “real status” and actually control the street, you need to stand out. You have to kill seven from your rival gang in the endless street war.
Etien made it. He’s both proud of this and frightened by it. You can’t run career advancement backward.
The caravan members don’t agree with Trump on the number of criminals in the caravan. By their estimate, it’s not 500, but about a quarter of the caravan belongs to street gangs.
They’re easily recognizable: baggy clothing, especially trousers, tattoos (all of them narrate a criminal journey), their way of walking and talking. While the caravan was in transit, normally warring MS-13 and Street 18 concluded a conditional truce and tried not to travel together to avoid provoking one another. When they got to Tijuana, they also kept separate. MS-13 settled in the stadium, Street 18 spread out among the shelters on the outskirts.
They aren’t applying for asylum. There’s a police file on almost every one of them in their home countries and they’re sure the Americans will check their past. All of them are planning to cross illegally. They’re counting on a mass crossing: “Everyone has a better chance then.”
What’s next? After crossing the border many find work (almost no one works in their home countries). And there’s one more rule: In America you can’t kill or rape children (you can in their home countries). That’s the first thing the ones who make it over are told.
In order to go with the caravan, you have to get permission from your superiors. After crossing the border, you’re obliged to keep in contact with them. Otherwise, you become “peseta” – a renegade.
If they find you, they might even kill you.
The only way to leave a gang is to get radically involved in a church. The gangsters respect religious freedom.
“What do you need the American dream for, kid?” a police officer says to Etien. “Stay in Mexico, there’s work!”
Etien says he’ll think about it.
The crowd got up to the police line. It started shouting.
At two in the afternoon, military exercises began on the other side of the border. A military helicopter climbed above the crowd. The police moved closer together. People started sitting down on the ground.
A line formed in front of a taco stand.
In the evening, one more march took place. The people stood for a while by the police line. Then they started to lie down on the traffic island, wrapped in blankets. 300 people were already lying on the surrounding streets: rumors about buses at three in the morning had come from somewhere. That America would open the border for Thanksgiving Day. There was talk of a caravan from Los Angeles. That Americans who didn’t agree with Trump had formed an enormous column and were on their way to take them all.
Skeptics were told: “It’s Thanksgiving, after all. A celebration of hospitality.”
It’s America’s absolutely most important legend – and well documented. Exactly four centuries ago the first settlers from England arrived on the Mayflower. 102 migrants – refugees, to be exact: forty-one men, nineteen women, and children. Two children were born on the way. The passage had been difficult, but the winter they faced turned out to be even harder. Half the settlers died from hunger, cold, and disease. Local indigenous from the Patuxet tribe, who had recently suffered the plague brought by European colonizers, were filled with sympathy for the refugees. They didn’t kill them, but took charge of the future Americans. They taught them how to grow corn, build houses, how to survive. They became neighbors. For a while.
The sleeping people are surrounded by police. An officer rouses those who try stretching plastic over their heads: “No tents near the border.” Immigration Service employees in orange vests make a request of the journalists: “There’s no sense in them lying here. At least explain to them. America won’t let them in.”
María Esperanza from Guatemala is crying. The husband she was traveling to just declared that she’s a bitch and won’t be going anywhere. María is 37. She has five children and speaks perfect English. She grew up in the USA. Her parents moved there on a working visa when she was one-and-a-half. Two of her children were born there. When she was 24, her husband was deported, and she followed him, knowing that she wouldn’t be able to return.
She spent the next 13 years in Guatemala. She taught her children English, sold sandwiches. After eight years, her husband crossed the border illegally, again. He sent less and less money, explaining that he had expenses. Then a strange woman called from his phone and told her that María’s husband was now with her and buying things for her and her children. That’s when María made the decision to join the caravan.
“Not because of social breakdown, no. I simply understood that soon he would stop helping us. I can’t let my children go hungry. That means it’s up to me.”
She didn’t take her children along. She had six, but she lost one girl three years ago to pneumonia. Her oldest daughter has bad asthma. Her breathing literally stops.
Her husband called when María was already in Tijuana. He told her he felt very sorry for her, and that she shouldn’t make the effort for his sake.
“But I’m not doing this for you,” said María.
Then she found out she’s a bitch.
She tried several times to call back, but he turned his phone off. Overnight, men approached her several times. One suggested moving from the street to “a newly opened shelter.” A second told her he had an American passport and might marry her.
Caravan members say: Many girls trying to get across end up in brothels. They’ve stationed guards in the shelters to keep the human traffickers away.
Playas de Tijuana
Where there’s concertina wire on the American side, on the Mexican side it’s a genuine beach. Little restaurants, a monument with dolphins, a lighthouse. Music. Young men sell crab shish kebab and coconut water.
The first building from the border is Café Ilegal. You can drink coffee for free here. Next door is the office of “Border Angels.” Their head office is in San Diego. This organization has existed since the end of the 80s and counts two thousand members. Once a week, volunteers distribute water in desert and mountain areas of the border so people crossing illegally don’t die along the way. On Tuesdays in San Diego, they organize free consultations with an immigration lawyer. They make food for undocumented workers and the homeless. Right now they’re sorting through boxes of clothes, freeing space. A column from Los Angeles arrives tomorrow.
This is not at all what the migrants were expecting. Twelve cars and buses, volunteers, lawyers, and doctors. No one is going to help the caravan break through the border. They’ll just dispense aid, offer advice, and provide medical treatment.
There’s a shelter one door down. A night here costs 20 pesos, or a dollar. It’s the last step before the border. “Some people stay a couple days, some are here just two hours, some for five minutes,” says the “angel” José. “Yesterday lots of people were crossing. It was a good day. Thanksgiving Day. It’s better only when it’s Christmas, rainy, or foggy.”
Miguel, who broke both legs in May when he jumped from the wall, has been living in the shelter longer than anyone. His legs are still in casts.
The shelter is a damp little room, all painted green. Bunk beds up to the ceiling. The residents are watching Disney’s Snow White.
Night approaches, the time for crossing. A police car drives along the beach. You can make a “wild” crossing, at your own risk, or you can go in an organized fashion.
The “coyotes” – guides – have raised their price from 5000 to 7000 dollars per person with the caravan’s arrival. The price includes crossing and delivery to a chosen population center. There’s a special tariff to New York: 18,000 dollars.
On days when the “coyotes” work, “wild” crossers won’t go. “They arrest one hundred percent.” Everyone believes the “coyotes” have an agreement with the border agents, but how can you prove it?
The “coyotes,” two men of the most unprepossessing appearance, have already collected their money and led the group out under the lighthouse on the shore. Today, they’re taking seven people. But the police, both regular and immigration police, drive up to the lighthouse. No one is afraid of the regular police here. They might even give you a boost when you’re climbing the wall. But the immigration police, “migra,” “work more for America than for Mexico.” “La migra,” after walking around the lighthouse, announces that anyone who “doesn’t go straight back to the shelter right now” will be detained. The “coyotes” and their charges walk away. That means the “wild” crossers will have a chance to pass.
The people encourage one another.
Yorman from Nicaragua arrived on Monday and has already tried to cross four times. So far, no luck.
“I ran for 200 meters, right up to the second fence, and there they were. Well, I pretended I was running along the concertina wire. They revved their engines. So I scrambled back!”
Last time, Yorman tried the sea. He went into the water, crept along the wall. They saw him.
“A patrol agent drives up and screams: ‘Don’t even try!’ And I made a sign like this” – Yorman puts his hand to his throat.
“Or wait for fog. In the fog, people ride horses. Creep up and hijack their horses!”
Daniel takes a serious approach to crossing. He obtained a board, a wetsuit, and a mask, and he’s been practicing for three days already. Even in a wetsuit, it’s cold. He plans to swim the dark sea and come out on Imperial Beach, far beyond the patrols.
Carla and Kevin are about 20. They look like they’re 16. Both are from Honduras. “We’ve been married eight months,” Kevin says proudly, and both of them laugh. Carla worked as a waitress, Kevin as an electrician. They couldn’t live together because their jobs were in different places. They went to look for work in Mexican Tapachula. They learned of the caravan only when it arrived in their town.
Both are literally beaming. Kevin has brought donated socks. He goes down on his knees, rubs Carla’s chilled feet: “We’ll have to run for a long time today.”
They’re crossing the border tonight.
Neither has ever been in the USA.
“We’re going for a better life,” says Kevin.
“For a better life,” says Carla.
There’s nothing more to say.
They’ll try to make it to New York.
Kevin boastfully places his hand on Carla’s belly. Both become embarrassed right away. Carla is pregnant. Their child is eight weeks.
The path plunges downward, the wall follows it and gets lower, the space between the pickets gets wider. In the bushes off in the distance a bonfire is burning. That’s where the people who will bide their time until 4 in the morning are warming themselves. A helicopter flies past overhead and turns back. A camera shines a red light. Fog is moving in from the sea, and that’s good. There’s a sweet smell of eucalyptus and cold dust. For some reason, there’s water underfoot.
We’re sitting in the bushes. One guy ignites leaves with his lighter and warms his hands.
A lilting whistle can be heard, as though some night bird is crying out.
It’s a signal.
The border is open. We can go.
The Caravan on the Move
All day Saturday they were painting flags in front of the stadium. Honduras. Guatemala. El Salvador. America. They wrote on sheets: “Trump, we don’t hate you.” “Hate is a good energy you can use for light.” “America, why can’t we cross your border, when you can violate ours?” “Jesus said to him, ‘I am the Way, and the Truth, and the Life.’” “God is Love.”
During the night, 15 busloads of federal police entered Tijuana. They fanned out through the city: with shields, in body armor and full uniforms. They answered questions from the caravan members: “We will protect you.”
On Sunday caravan members moved out toward the border at 10 in the morning. The procession was called a peace march.
A young fellow was shouting through a megaphone: “The caravan is on the move, the caravan is on the move! Don’t leave your things behind, we’re leaving!”
A thousand people set off for the border. A few women were pushing strollers. People put their children on their shoulders, carried them in their arms. The mood was festive.
No one warned them that at the very same time, at the other end of Tijuana, an “anti-immigrant march” was gathering for the second time.
“We are not murderers. We are not an invasion. We are just workers, international workers!” the caravan members chanted on the road.
They were walking quickly. They got to the bridge that leads across the Tijuana River to the border checkpoint in literally ten minutes. Here the caravan ran into the police cordon. The police, who had up to now been allowing caravan members to approach the border, stood like a wall.
They began singing the Honduran anthem, then the Guatemalan. The police stood their ground. No one wanted a fight with the police.
“We want to pass. Peacefully. Can we?” the young man with the megaphone requested.
The police moved a second line up to back the cordon.
After standing an hour in the sun, the crowd started folding all at once in under the bridge. The police officers cut to the chase, pitched into the crowd, knocked people down, working with their shields. The pace of the march quickened to a run.
People poured onto the embankment and started running down along the steep concrete slope.
The Tijuana River, more like a stream, flows on the bottom of a canal, the refuge of the local homeless. It stinks in the canal. Feet tromp through viscous muck. They were crossing the narrow stream on service bridges. They broke into a run for the steep banks.
Their run brought on jubilation. People didn’t run away, they ran for the border, the goal of their month and a half of travel. Everyone was smiling. Laughter, whistles, someone even started singing. They stopped to help one another. It seemed like they would get across the inaccessible American border the same way they had earlier crossed the borders of three more countries.
“They won’t shoot us. Definitely not,” a young man shouted to his girlfriend. “Just run.”
Police were also waiting on the other bank. The caravan veered again and again to avoid a clash. Over the course of two weeks, they had learned the city pretty well. In order to emerge on the square in front of the border, they started cutting through an empty building in a parking lot. Arms were hanging out of the windows. They lifted the children up, passing them from hand to hand. Five people lifted Rafael and his crutches. The two faithful Miguels got him over, while three others dragged the wheelchair.
People ran out onto San Ysidro Square, in front of the border. Strangely enough, there were only a few police on the square, and they didn’t make a move. The crowd ran past. The young people were ululating.
They weren’t about to storm the crossing itself. They ran along the wall, looking for a weak point. Tijuana goes right up to the border: little houses with peaceful yards. Laundry hangs on clotheslines, old men smoke in their doorways, dogs sniff the air apprehensively, without barking, when a laughing, shouting crowd hurtles past.
Finally, after bending some low barbed wire, the flood poured out onto the railroad tracks. Tankers and yellow diesel locomotives were vegetating on the tracks. The wall, right close by, was rusty and warm. The rails went beyond the wall, into America.
A helicopter was already circling overhead.
Young folks clambered up onto the trains and stood there, waving flags. Others continued along the border fence. In one place, there was a gap between two sections. A chink, to be exact. They started squeezing through it. The first twenty people got into neutral territory.
Only fifty meters left to America.
Three shots rang out.
People went running for the trains. The helicopter passed very low over them. Mothers with children started scrambling under the train cars. A woman lifted a sheet of paper with a quote from Exodus over her head: “You shall not oppress a stranger; you know the heart of a stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”
Tear gas crept toward the train cars.
The Mexican police, who had finally come up to the tracks, started negotiating:
“Go back to the stadium. You'll get medical help there and we'll find a solution. Right now you're facing off against the Mexican police and US border forces.”
“No way,” women shouted in reply. “We have blankets. We’ll sleep here!”
One of them, sitting on the rails, was changing her son’s diapers.
José Raúl Hernández is trying not to cry, so he’s breathing rapidly. They’ve hurriedly splinted his finger – it’s broken. On his left side, where his heart is, there’s a fast-ripening bruise.
He was the first of twenty who got into neutral territory.
“I’m thin, so I squeezed through. We put our hands up, the way the rights advocates taught us. We said we were requesting asylum. They told us, ‘Go back to Mexico.’ They aimed their guns at us. I said, ‘Fine.’ We started walking away. And right then he shouted, ‘Go toward the fence!’ And he shot me.”
“I didn’t expect that,” says Raúl. “After such a trip.”
Raúl was born in San Pedro Sula, where the caravan started. He worked as a driver on the route between the city and the suburb of Col el Carmen. A driver has the riskiest job in the Northern Triangle, more dangerous than being a police officer. The driver on the other shift, Marcelo Maldonado Vis, was killed last Friday. He couldn’t pay the gangs. They had cut off his father’s ear and broken his ribs a long time ago. He never told his son why. They “gutted” Jordan from the caravan, who had walked half the way with Raúl. Jordan decided to go back to Honduras, and did return, but couldn’t explain his absence to the gangsters – and the absence of payments.
Raúl had never doubted that America would be his salvation. He vividly remembers the man who shot him. Balaclava, black beard and moustache, black sweater. He couldn’t see his eyes because of the glasses. Spoke English and Spanish. A loud, deep voice, “about my age.”
The people, after waiting for the gas to clear, started returning anxiously to the chink. No one crawled inside. They shouted to the Americans across the fence.
“We brought Honduran food, want some?”
“Hey, pal, why are you so ugly?”
“We’re going farther, to Canada, let us go!”
“We come in peace! We came to work!”
“If you let me in, you get this,” shouted a Guatemalan woman, slapping her sides.
The American border agents stood there, rifles down. They looked like mannequins.
The Mexican police waited ten minutes and began to advance with their shields.
A woman with red hair recognized the officer who had hit her on the bridge. “You hit me in the chest with your shield and I fell down. You hit me again. I fell down again. You hit me!”
The officer stared into space and advanced with his shield.
“Don’t say anything, let it go,” her husband begged her. “Let’s go.”
“I’m a woman! I’m a woman! Why did you hit me?”
The police went forward. An old man in a blue cap shouted: “Why are you defending their border? We crossed Mexico peacefully, we haven’t touched you!”
The police let the thinning crowd onto the bridge again. Again, tear gas. This time the Mexican police shot the canisters. A seven-year-old girl started choking. Her mother, taking her by the hand, went rushing between the advancing police lines. She was shouting. He husband was carrying their two other children, very small, and very quiet.
They were already waiting for the migrants in the park under the bridge. A crowd of teenagers and men with sticks and clubs, some with chains, ululating, attacked the caravan members. They split into groups and selected their victims. They threw stones. A fat woman yelled, “Get out!” They mistook a radio journalist for a migrant, tore off his backpack, and smashed him in the head with a stone.
The police arrested two migrants the crowd hadn’t gotten to yet.
School kids who had come to watch “how they beat up the Hondurans” were racing around among the fighters. They were very cheerful.
A street vendor was shouting at the police: “Let the ‘migra’ come and explain why they let them go to the border in the first place!”
The American border had been closed for a few hours already, from the moment the caravan members started running toward the crossing point. This provoked rage among the inhabitants of the bazaar right in front of the San Ysidro post. Sunday is their most profitable day. Souvenirs for tourists, embroidered Mexican blouses, figurines of the Madonna, dogs, and Santa Claus. Right on site are little cafes and storage for the street vendors who walk through traffic jams at the border selling cigarettes, cola, and sandwiches.
And the hawkers closed their stands to join the crowd of vigilantes.
The last caravan members were driven into the back alleys. The younger hawkers let off the beatings, tossed a ball out, and started to play soccer in front of the shuttered stands.
At first no one wanted to talk. They even promised to “draw straws” if I kept asking. Then the justifications started coming out.
“The Americans stopped coming, stopped spending money, business ground to a halt,” says the hawker Amando Ocampo. “Now they're saying the border's closed for five days. If that's right, I'm going to lose 2000 pesos.”
“We're not racists, but why won't they wait for asylum? It means they didn't come for work, but we don't know what they came for.”
“Who's going to feed my family? Who's going to feed my neighbors' families? We're ready for anything, for any violence to defend what's ours,” says Óscar Domingo Vegas Estavra. “We also have 'human rights.'”
The police surrounded the stadium during the night. They drove up in an armored carrier. In the school next to the stadium, classes were canceled. Trump demanded that Mexico “move the... Migrants... back to their countries. Do it by plane, do it by bus, do it any way you want,” and promised “to close the Border permanently if need be.” Ivan Riebeling recorded a new video address – to the migrants. He promised this was only the beginning and suggested they leave the country on buses “while you can.”
And the buses came.
“It's all strictly voluntary,” said the Immigration Service. They made lists. By evening, 500 people had signed up. They'll be taken away and dropped off in Mexico City, farther from the border. From there, the immigration police will form a caravan headed back to the capitals of Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras. The Honduran embassy, gathering its people at the stadium, promised everyone who “leaves voluntarily” 5000 quetzals (43,000 rubles), but only on arrival.
They cut the orange bracelets from those who signed up and stuck on pink ones. 100 people left the first day.
It started raining on Thursday. It rained for two days. The stadium turned into an impassible mess. And buses started taking people away to El Barretal, a concert venue in the eastern part of Tijuana, farther from the border. In the stadium, there were still people hiding under the stands, along with wet rags, worn-out shoes, trash, and water.
San Diego – Tijuana
Novaia Gazeta would like to thank María Antonia Esmenha Pineda, a refugee from Guatemala, variously employed, mother of five, without whom this text would not have been possible.