| Photography: Guillermo Arias | Interview: Matthew Lee |
The migrants who reached the US border on 13th November were part of a 2,000-strong ‘caravan’ that set off by foot a month earlier from San Pedro Sula, a Honduran city notorious for its high murder rate.
Tijuana-based photojournalist Guillermo Arias joined the caravan at Mexico’s southern border with Guatemala. “They were fleeing poverty and an ugly cycle of violence,” explains Arias, who estimates that around 80 percent of those in the caravan were Honduran. Along with El Salvador and Guatemala, Honduras makes up Central America’s so-called ‘Northern Triangle’, which has struggled with a gang-violence epidemic for many years. In gang-controlled areas, teenage boys are forced into violence and teenage girls are often sexually exploited. A 2017 Médecins Sans Frontières report described the violence experienced by people in these countries as “not unlike that of individuals living through war”, adding that “citizens are murdered with impunity, and kidnappings and extortion are daily occurrences”.
“When I asked the migrants why they were undertaking such a dangerous journey, often with children, they said that not travelling was far more dangerous,” recalls Arias. “As the caravan moved further away from Mexico’s southern border, it split into smaller groups as some migrants managed to get rides. This photo taken in Veracruz state [previous page] was one of the last times I saw a large group walking together. By early November, the caravan was already spread out over around 600 kilometres.”
Arias saw many members of the caravan scrambling to get on trucks and buses [above and right], determined to cover the journey between Mexico’s southern and northern borders as quickly – and as safely – as possible. “They would jump onto any vehicle that would take them,” he says. “Southern Mexico is very dangerous; migrants began travelling in caravans [several smaller caravans departed Honduras in 2017 and early 2018] to provide safety in numbers. Travelling in trucks is much safer than walking. The dangers aren’t just limited to thieves, gangs and organised crime – the Mexican authorities can also be extremely rough with migrants.”
“This photo [above] was taken using a drone in San Pedro Tapanatepec, a town in Oaxaca state,” says Arias. “It’s not an official shelter – it’s an open-air basketball court. There wasn’t anything organised for the migrants throughout southern Mexico, so they usually headed downtown and camped wherever they could. Luckily for them the weather was good.”
On 13th November, when the first members of the caravan reached Tijuana, the local authorities were already struggling to accommodate an estimated 2,800 migrants, most living in shelters, who were awaiting their turn to apply for asylum in the US.
On 23rd November, Tijuana mayor Juan Manuel Gastélum declared a humanitarian crisis, claiming the city had been let down by Mexico’s federal government and that it urgently needed UN help .
“The authorities initially opened a temporary shelter in a sports complex on the border, and when it was replaced by a new shelter ten miles to the south some migrants stayed behind, including this family [below],” says Arias. “When I met them in December 2018 they were still hopeful of getting into the US.”
Arias also photographed the first migrants from the caravan to get permission to work legally in Mexico at the supermarket where they were employed [below]. “There are lots of jobs in Tijuana,” says Arias. “I told migrants that they didn’t need to get into the US; they could find work here.” Yet nobody in the caravan dreams of settling in Mexico. “They all want to reach the US,” acknowledges Arias. “But the reality is that they need to send money home to help their families who sold everything to pay for their trip. A job here will help them do that.”
In late November President Trump tweeted that migrants would have to stay in Mexico until US courts had approved their asylum claims. The thousands of people in shelters in Tijuana became aware that an enormous backlog could take many months, or even years, to clear – and there was no guarantee their applications would be successful. “This was a turning point,” says Arias. “It’s when many of the migrants started crossing the border outside official ports of entry.”
December was a challenging month in Tijuana. “I saw this one man climb the fence,” Arias recalls. “He threw himself into the concertina wire [on the US side] and spent five to ten minutes crawling through it [bottom left]. It was so painful to see.”
The year ended with violence. “On New Year’s Day a large group of migrants attempted to cross but was stopped by border patrol,” says Arias. “The migrants were leaving when these activists [from US-based radical leftist groups] urged them to be more aggressive with border patrol and tear gas bombs were hurled at them. It was horrible.”
By the end of January 2019, around 1,800 migrants from the caravan were still in Tijuana, waiting to have their cases heard. “It’s a lot calmer in the city right now,” says Arias. But other Mexican border towns have come under pressure. In February 2019 a caravan of around 1,800 migrants arrived in Piedras Negras, across the Rio Grande from Texas. It’s unlikely to be
Slow Journalism in your inbox, plus infographics, offers and more: sign up for the free DG newsletter. Sign me up
Thanks for signing up.