Visibility & Protection​: Understanding Central American Migrant Caravans

Angel A. Escamilla Garcia
January 27, 2019

The week, news broke of another migrant caravan departing from Honduras with the intention of reaching the Mexican-American border. News outlets estimate that this caravan contains at least seven thousand people, with some reporting up to ten thousand, and it includes a substantial number of families and minors. This, after three caravans, made the same trek in 2018. Such numbers make us wonder–why the caravan, and why now?

A look at the origins of the Central American migrant caravan is illuminating. In 2010, migrant shelters in Southern Mexico began conducting a yearly migrant Via Crucis (the Way of the Cross) to raise awareness about the plight Central American migrants on their way to the United States through Mexico. The Via Crucis was a march by migrants and activists, from a shelter to a nearby place symbolic for migrants, such as a roadblock or a train station. The name Via Crucis recalls the walk of Jesus carrying his cross before his crucifixion and seeks to reflect the tortuous route migrants take northward. Often, the participants of the Via Crucis themselves carried a cross. (See image below)

In March 2015, following the 2014 implementation of the “Southern Border Plan” along the Mexico-Guatemala border, the Via Crucis grew. The United States pushed for and partially funded increased immigration enforcement on and near that border. Pursuant to the plan, Mexico detained and deported more than 120,000 migrants in 2014.

Thus, following the implementation of the Southern Border Plan, the Via Crucis organizers announced their intention to march all the way from the southern state of Oaxaca (and later from Tabasco) to Mexico City. The leaders sought to meet with government officials and to make visible the harsh conditions that Central American migrants faced after the implementation of the Plan. The 2015 migrant caravan had less than three hundred participants and was stopped and harassed multiple times by federal and local authorities before eventually reaching Mexico City in mid-April. There, members of the migrant Via Crucis met with Secretary of the Interior Miguel Ángel Osorio Chong, and members of the National Commission of Human Rights, and they visited the Basilica of Guadalupe to thank the Saint for their safe arrival.

A member of the 2015 Via Crucis carrying a cross with the words “Enough with Migrant’s Blood” inscribed.
Picture from Cuarto Obscuro by ARTURO PÉREZ ALFONSO /CUARTOSCURO.COM Source:

Despite these 2015 meetings, and continued annual migrant Via Crucis, little has changed for the undocumented migrants who walk, train hop, and hitch-hike through Mexico year-round on their way to the U.S. These individuals face daunting journeys. Through my research, I have witnessed migrants who have walked for days through deserts, forests, and swamps, all in order to avoid detention and deportation by Mexican authorities. In the process, dehydration, fungus, blisters, wounds, bug bites, sickness, and hunger become their routine. In addition to these physical realities, their undocumented status in Mexico turns the space they cross into a hunting ground for predators. At the hands of criminal groups, individuals, and officials, extortion, brutal beatings, rape, kidnapping, and death all are possibilities for migrants moving through Mexico undocumented.

Facing such great dangers, and inspired by the migrant Via Crucis, migrants in the last few years have thus begun to form their own large groups for migration. Their moving together creates a certain safety in numbers. By grouping together, they make themselves visible to everyone, including to authorities, to people that want to harm them, to the general public, to the news media, which helps prevent them from being clandestinely targeted by criminal groups and corrupt officials. These are the caravans that now dominate the news.

This grouping aspect of Central American migration is not exclusive to the caravan. During my time in the field, it was common to meet all types of informal groups of people migrating together. When I would ask groups how they knew each other, the most common answer was that they had grouped together looking for protection or guidance. This includes youth that join up with unknown adults seeking some protection and women that find partners along the journey hoping to avoid potential sexual abuse.

Thus, though migrant caravans now make politically-charged headline news, they are neither new, nor do they represent a new “threat.” Instead, they are coherent social responses by vulnerable individuals who seek to reclaim some of the humanity that has been taken from them.


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