On January 15, 2021 at approximately 3:00 a.m., a caravan of between 4-5,000 migrants left the Metropolitan Bus Terminal in San Pedro Sula, Honduras, headed for the United States. Over the following days the caravan grew in size, with more than 10,000 participants at its largest. The caravan was largely dispersed on the 17th and 18th by Guatemalan Immigration Officials in the town of Chiquimula, and thousands of Hondurans were returned to their country by bus. A significant number of migrants – as many as three thousand – continued on to cross into Mexico, in smaller groups.
This was the largest caravan to have formed in the region, despite having received significantly less media coverage than the larger one in 2018 that had up to 7,000 participants and was politicized during the U.S. midterms – and there is already another caravan on the horizon, planned for as soon as March 30th.
The caravan formed during the final days of Trump’s presidency, with many believing that the new administration would be more accommodating to migrants. According to Hondurans, it also formed while the country was facing an unprecedented humanitarian crisis.
Dunia Orellana is an independent Honduran journalist who followed the caravan until it reached the Guatemalan border. A few days later, she traveled to Tecun-Uman, at the border between Guatemala and Chiapas, Mexico, and then to Tapachula, Chiapas, where she encountered many of the same migrants. She described the experience of documenting the caravan and its aftermath as “life changing:”
This experience has truly changed my life. It’s hard to watch so many people leave your country when you are Honduran. Because sometimes from a foreign perspective one tries to be very distant, but for me it was different. For me, the connection was much more direct because they were my people – people from my neighborhoods, from my barrios, from my city.
The experience of walking with them from the terminal was something that I had never experienced, because I had never walked with so many people. And you saw that there were people of all ages – girls, babies, adults, elders. And in the context of Covid it was very complex.
I also saw a lot of solidarity – especially on the part of Hondurans themselves, and others who offered provisions, as they moved towards a dream that ended up being broken for the majority. It’s very difficult to know that these people left Honduras with hope and are still fighting for that dream, to cross Mexico and reach the United States. There’s no words to describe how it feels.
According to Orellana, the majority of the participants in the caravan were attempting to migrate for the first time:
For most people it was their first time, but there were vulnerable groups – such as trans women – for whom this was their third or fourth time migrating. I can tell you that 99% of the people who were in that caravan were very poor, and were very innocent in their thinking.
The majority of the participants had been severely impacted by the November Hurricanes Eta and Iota, which affected over 4.6 million people in Honduras, and left at least 94 dead. Due to the combined factors of the Covid-19 pandemic and the hurricanes, the poverty rate in Honduras is projected to exceed 70% in 2021 – up from 61.9% in 2020.
Orellana used the metaphor of Dante’s Inferno to describe the dangerous route that migrants take in order to reach the United States:
The Divine Comedy speaks of different stages of the inferno – to me, there’s the Honduran hell, the Guatemalan hell, the Mexican hell, and there is also the hell that is the United States. And each State in Mexico that they travel through is like it’s own Inferno.
Orellana explained how the caravan formed and began its trajectory:
First of all, it was formed by the voice of the people. There is a Facebook group, there are around six or seven thousand people in it – I included myself to know more details. We slept with them at the terminal in San Pedro Sula, and I observed that there were groups that took command and told people what to do. That does not mean that someone was forcing them [to join the caravan], because they joined voluntarily.
Being in the place where the caravan organized, we realized that there were people with megaphones telling people many things, making many promises. We also realized that many of those people were not telling the truth, and they were being misleading.
I’m not sure if I realized it at the time, but there was one woman in particular that orchestrated everything. She told everyone that we would be able to go to triage centers so that they could give us tests. And people were excited because the people in the caravans don’t have access to a Covid test, which minimum costs you fifty dollars. We’re talking about the poorest of the poorest people.
Orellana isn’t sure what the motives were of the people she saw organizing the caravan:
She was a young woman, I have photographs of her, because the way she negotiated with the police caught my attention – the Honduran police let people pass through. There were a lot of restrictions, so that’s when I asked myself, in whose best interest is it that the caravan would work or not work?
There’s always a lot of controversy over the question of Trump, after the first caravan so strongly formed in 2018. Who is behind those caravans, maybe the U.S. State Department itself is financing them? Because I looked at the Honduran police talking to this woman as if they had known each other for years, so that gave me a little suspicion as a journalist. And then she went to negotiate with the Guatemalan police and with the immigration authorities, and the immigration authorities said no.
Human Rights organizations accompanied the caravan, such as the Nation Commision Of Human Rights, Doctors Without Borders, The Red Cross, The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), and World Vision International. At the same time, Orellana observed people lying about their identity:
Some people in the caravan used the name of humanitarian aid organizations to trick people. In the midst of so many lies – listening to those voices that tell you “they are going to give us assistance,” it really is very difficult.
Orellana also recalled some of the stories of members of the caravan:
There’s a young Honduran woman named Yessica. Yessica fled Honduras from San Pedro Sula, where she used to sell corn. When the hurricanes came she was completely devastated – she’s a single mother and she lost everything. I went to her house, checked her story, and it’s true. She experienced repression in Guatemala, and photos of her appeared in the media. I met her later on in Tecun [at the border between Guatemala and Mexico], and she told me that after she was injured she was given first aid.
Some of the people who gave her first aid tried to take away her children. She was with her children – an eleven-year old and four-year old. Her instinct as a mother led her to believe people (but not the authorities) intended to take them away from her. We’re talking about the trafficking of minors. She told me she asked them for water and ran away. She kept asking for help, until she reached Tecun.
In Tecun, the Guatemalan army came, picked them [her and her sons] up, beat them, and threatened to leave them about twenty kilometers away from the town. She described those violations to me. And the authorities don’t care if they are acting against children or adults.
Yessica told me that she was offered a job for ten quetzals [approx. $ 1.30] per day, to make tortillas. Many people either do that kind of work or they do sex work – which can get them a little more – to make a little money, and give it to the traffickers who help them cross from Guatemala to Mexico. I mean, it’s a whole chain of horrible exploitation.
I also met a young trans woman. She told me that to get here, she left the caravan – I met her in Tapachula, Mexico. Her name is Dulce. Dulce told me that she is 18 years old and to get here, to cross from Tecun, she had to give away her shoes. And from the look on her face, I think she had to give more than just her shoes. She may have been a victim of sexual abuse. So if you don’t have anything, then, either your children serve [the authority] or your body serves [them], or your hands serve [them].
Orellana explained that she focuses her attention the most on women and the LGBTQ+ community because they are “the most vulnerable”, and are more likely to be sexually abused or be victims of human trafficking.
Trans people are particularly vulnerable to discrimination within the caravan:
I did see acts of violence against trans women by the very men in the caravan. And some had to engage in sex work as well, in order to continue the journey. You are a victim, and you also become a victimizer, that is, that’s all. I talked to a trans woman, and she told me “Dunia, to be able to cross the border, from Honduras to Guatemala, I had to sleep with three soldiers,” because she had no money to pass.
The Caravan Continued
On the 18th, Guatemalan forces overpowered the migrant caravan as it entered the city of Chiquimula, with an extreme level of force. This episode has been widely reported on.
In May 2019, the Department of Homeland Security under the Trump administration’s directive signed an agreement with the Guatemalan government, known as the Asylum Cooperative Agreement (A.C.A.), which would “deploy officials from U.S. Customs and Border Protection and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to advise and mentor host nation police, border security, immigration, and customs counterparts”. As one reporter put it, these policies essentially moved the U.S. border into Central America.
The A.C.A. was revoked by President Biden’s executive order on February 6th, but was still in place during January.
The Guatemalan Institute of Migration reported on January 21st that at least 4,526 people were officially registered as having crossed the border from Honduras between the 14th and 20th – over three thousand were returned, while one thousand were emitted into the country. The Institute states it returned the majority of the people voluntarily, but Orellana revealed that the truth may be more complex:
According to the interviews I did with people who returned – some voluntarily decided to leave, others were taken by force. And taken “voluntarily,” but captured. Others escaped without any doubt, and they are the ones we follow up on. A family of eight that I interviewed before crossing the border into Guatemala told me “we couldn’t take it anymore,” and when they went back to Honduras they gave the authorities fake names.
The police grabbed others and returned them to Honduras, but they turned back and continued back to the border. So there are all kinds of stories. If some were detained, others voluntarily decided to return.
While the caravan’s central group may have been dispersed, many of the migrants traveling in it continued on their path to the U.S., albeit in smaller groups, which makes them more vulnerable to organized crime and other dangers.
Orellana later traveled to Tapachula, Chiapas, which borders Guatemala, where she found a significant amount of migrants from the caravan:
According to authorities in the end the caravan was almost ten thousand people. I saw approximately four to five thousand people leave San Pedro Sula. I think the others joined along the route. The authorities say that they returned to seven thousand.
I don’t know if they returned all seven thousand. I don’t believe that. But I can tell you that there may be a group in Tapachula. Groups of up to three thousand, but dispersed, different from in the caravan previously.
According to Orellana, the majority of migrants that succeeded in reaching Tapachula slept on the city streets.
This was not “just another caravan”
Migrant caravans have been a common sight in Central America and Mexico since 2018 – since the pandemic began there have already been two caravans – one in June, and one in October. So what makes this one unique? To Orellana there’s many reasons:
For me it is a very curious thing because this caravan represented the beginning of Joe Biden’s term. So I think the media did not give it the importance they should have. Because I understand that there is an agenda, and the agenda was not to give it attention – because even the people at the United Nations said “look, another caravan.”
But it is not just another caravan. It is a caravan in a totally different context – a caravan during a Pandemic, and the situation in Honduras was much more tragic than at other times. So there were many more reasons to flee.
And I think the media were not very interested in that. Or they tried to lessen it. Maybe the independent newspapers were, but the traditional media weren’t. And they forgot about the small groups, as if people don’t continue migrating. They looked at it as something normal.Lilia Rebeca Giron, a member of the National Network of Women Human Rights Defenders in Honduras, also views this caravan as outstanding:
For me the migrant caravans have been a radical expression of denunciation. They are a way of saying that we don’t want this life. It is a way of dealing with this model of death that it has been installed in this country. The caravans are a practice of life, and it is painful that now it’s not only hunger – now there’s many other causes that lead people to mobilize.
Giron added that even before the hurricanes hit, daily life in Honduras was difficult for many:
As a network of defenders, we already received daily calls from families asking where they could resettle, because they had been removed from their homes for not being able to pay [rent or taxes]. All this, and to top it off, the two hurricanes Eta and Iota.
Karen Rodriguez, who immigrated from Honduras to Spain in 2010 after the coup d’etat of 2009, agrees that Honduras is facing a humanitarian crisis:
The situation in Honduras right now is bleak. The country could not be in worse shape. It has never been like it is now. I say that it cannot be worse, but in the case of Honduras it always gets worse, I don’t know how it does it, but the situation in this country is not sustainable.
Rodriguez is a founding member of the Network of Immigrant Honduran Women in Spain, which supports Spain’s immigrant community and regularly sends remittances back to Honduras. Her organization is in regular contact with feminist networks in Honduras, such as Somos Muchas and the National Network of Human Rights Defenders.
Rodriguez does not see herself returning to live in Honduras – “The people’s organizing is the only thing that could succeed in making change,” she reflected, “that people see migration in a massive way, but I see that change coming in the long term. For it to come to pass I see it as a utopia.”
After her experience documenting the caravan, Orellana remains hopeful for the future. She stated:
I have faith – beyond religious faith – that we can do justice to these stories – for me it is not only important to tell stories, but to try to connect the families migrating to the help they need.
In other words, make those faces [of migrants] visible and tell [their stories] with the highest journalistic standard, and at the same time without losing humanity, because sometimes as journalists we lose our humanity, and I don’t want to become a robot.
Orellana considers herself an activist-journalist:
I don’t just tell stories, because, as I told my colleague, this touches me very deeply. So for some trans girls, for example, I had to seek help. And my colleague asked me “what are you?” And I answered I am a journalist, but I also know that journalism is not enough – I have to find someone who can help them. But it hurts sometimes that I can’t help everyone. But somehow or other I carry on with my job. But there are limits, especially with stories like these.
Dashiell is a graduate of Reed College where he studied Latin American and Peninsular Spanish literature. At Latina Republic, Dashiell elevates the voices of activists and organizers that work to promote human rights and immigrant rights throughout Mexico. His work contributes to the organization’s mission of breaking stereotypes and bringing attention to underreported stories throughout Latin America.