Thousands of migrants left Tapachula, Chiapas, on foot Monday morning, beginning a long journey to the northern border with the United States, where they hope to claim asylum or cross into that country between official ports of entry.
Reports about the size of the migrant caravan varied, with estimates as low as 4,000 and as high as 15,000. Caravan organizer Luis García Villagrán put the figure at 11,000.
The National Immigration Institute (INM) hasn’t commented publicly on the caravan, which is mainly made up of Venezuelans, Cubans and Central Americans and includes pregnant women, children and people with disabilities.
Tired of waiting for months in Tapachula to regularize their migratory status, the migrants departed from the southern city shortly after 6:00 a.m. Monday and walked approximately 15 kilometers in the rain to the town of Álvaro Obregón, where they spent the night. They planned to walk some 30 kilometers on Tuesday to the town of Huixtla.
The migrants passed an INM checkpoint outside Tapachula but fears they would be detained proved unfounded. INM agents and members of the National Guard have broken up previous caravans by confronting them with force and detaining migrants.
Arbitrary detentions, excessive use of force and sexual violence are among the abuses committed against migrants by the armed forces and the National Guard, according to a recent report by six non-governmental organizations.
García Villagrán, director of the Centro de Dignificación Humana (Human Dignity Center), an NGO, said the first goal of the latest migrant caravan is to get to Tuxtla Gutiérrez and demand that the INM issue them with documents that allow them to continue their journey to the northern border legally. He said INM officials told the migrants their claims would be processed in the Chiapas capital.
García Villagrán and other migrant advocates said the departure of the caravan was timed to coincide with the Summit of the Americas, a regional meeting currently taking place in Los Angeles.
“Today we say to the leaders of the United States and each of the countries meeting at the Summit of the Americas [that] migrant families are not a bargaining chip for ideological and political interests,” García Villagrán said before the caravan left Chiapas.
“… Today we’re going to walk in the name of God … so that it’s seen that we’re free people with dignity who have the right to migrate. Migrating is not a crime,” he said.
The Associated Press reported that many migrants carried children in their arms and on their backs, and used sheets of plastic and blankets to protect themselves from constant rain.
Ruben Medina told AP that he and 12 family members left Venezuela because of the poor conditions in the country under the rule of President Nicolás Maduro, who along with the presidents of Cuba and Nicaragua didn’t receive an invitation to the Summit of the Americas, leading President López Obrador to decide not to attend the meeting.
“[We have] been waiting [in Tapachula] about two months for the visa and still nothing, so better to start walking in this march,” he said.
Nicaraguan migrant Joselyn Ponce said she was given an appointment with the Mexican refugee commission COMAR in August but couldn’t afford to wait in Tapachula, where there are few if any work opportunities for undocumented migrants.
“We had to walk around hiding from immigration, there were raids, because if they catch us they will lock us up,” she said, referring to the time she spent in the southern city, located about 40 kilometers north of the border with Guatemala, where thousands of migrants enter Mexico every day.
The Bajo la Bota (Under the Boot) report by the Foundation for Justice and the Democratic Rule of Law and five other groups asserted that “Mexico has opted for the implementation of a migration policy without a human rights focus, making use of the National Guard and other military forces as an apparatus of migration control even when this goes against migration regulations and international human rights law.”
It said that the use of the National Guard to combat the flow of migrants through Mexico is “one of the main institutional legacies” of the pressure imposed on Mexico by the administration of former United States president Donald Trump, who described at least one migrant caravan as an “invasion.”
Mexico deployed troops to its southern and northern borders in 2019 after Trump threatened to impose blanket tariffs on Mexican exports to the U.S. if the Mexican government didn’t do more to stem migration. Mexico has continued to detain migrants in large numbers since United States President Joe Biden took office in early 2021, but many have nevertheless made it to the northern border, with illegal attempts to cross the border currently at their highest level in decades.
Regional migration is scheduled to be the main topic of discussion at Summit of the Americas meetings on Friday. Noting that Foreign Affairs Minister Marcelo Ebrard would be in attendance, U.S. State Department spokesman Ned Price said Monday that López Obrador’s absence would not hinder further efforts to cooperate on migration and other issues.
As thousands of migrants head north while simultaneously bringing renewed attention to the crime, poverty, political repression and other factors that forced them to leave their countries of origin, other would-be U.S. asylum seekers remain in Tapachula.
A group of migrants held at the Siglo XXI detention center climbed onto the facility’s roof Monday in an attempt to escape. However, police and the National Guard surrounded the center and prevented an exodus.
Approximately 70 detained migrants have been on a hunger strike in recent days to pressure authorities to allow them to leave.