How is a migrant caravan formed?

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In recent years, at the behest of the US government, Mexican authorities have been cracking down on migration through Mexico which, in turn, has put migrants at more risk of being robbed, abducted or killed by powerful, well organised gangs. These same gangs now run a very lucrative people-smuggling business charging several thousand dollars per person just to get them to the US border. As a response, people fleeing from violence and poverty in El Triangulo Norte – the three northernmost Central American countries: Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras – have been forming caravans of hundreds and sometimes thousands of people migrating together, in the hope that they will find safety in numbers.

Near the end of last week it suddenly seemed imminent to the close observer that several groups of migrants were about to set off from Honduras and El Salvador to join forces with untold numbers of Cuban and Venezuelan refugees and form the “Mother of all Caravans”, a projected 20.000+ people walking, bussing and hitch-hiking to seek refuge in the United States.

A Google search on Thursday returned a handful of articles, some quoting a Mexican official, warning of the formation and imminent arrival of this “Caravana Madre”, while others quoted Honduran officials denying its existence. But an initial search for information on where and when to find this caravan didn’t return any definitive answers. Surely 20.000 people couldn’t organise something like this without leaving a trace online?

Several hours of research on social media platforms on Friday evening led me to a WhatsApp group in which people were planning to meet up the following morning to leave San Pedro Sula, Honduras by bus. One person also claimed that a similar meet up was being organised in San Salvador, the capital of El Salvador. But by late on Friday night, there was still less than 50 people gathered at the meeting point in Honduras, for a 5am start. By the time both groups had left, the highest numbers I could confirm were two bus loads from Honduras and “more than 30 people” in San Salvador. Hardly, the “Mother of all Caravans” promised by some of the media. Still, the idea was to gather more people along the way, so maybe Guatemalans were to make up a good portion of this caravan or maybe people who couldn’t make the Saturday morning meet up were going to catch up later.

It suddenly seemed imminent that a new caravan was about to form.

As for the unconfirmed reports of 2000 Cubans waiting in Tapachula for their Central American brethren to show up so they could cross Mexico together, I wasn’t convinced. First of all if they had come by sea, the shortest route to mainland Mexico would be straight to Cancun (not to mention the closest point on the mainland overall is in Florida). Why then would they have travelled over a thousand miles south and west to heavily policed coastal Chiapas? If on the other hand, they had come through Central America, why go ahead to Mexico and then wait there to join up with the people whose countries they’ve just come through? I’m not saying that there isn’t an explanation for all this, just that in a climate of much misinformation, it seems reasonable to question any unusual claim.

It’s Tuesday morning now and there is a single article on my google search of “caravana madre” that is less than a day old. It dispels the myth of a caravan several tens of thousands strong, and reports on 2500 people setting off from Tapachula (no mention of 4/5 of them being Cuban). Indeed, the article even quotes an activist with Pueblos sin Fronteras who suggest that the rumours of a huge caravan might have come straight from the administration of Donald Trump. This, in order to fuel fears of an “invasion”, in preparation for the US presidential election campaign next year. This suspicion echoes others we heard about the highly publicised caravan of October/November 2018 being organised to coincide with the run up to the US mid-term elections, putting the Trump administration’s anti-immigration agenda at the front of the news. (In the event, the republican party still lost control of Congress but the point still stands). “Was it even undercover US government agents who had organised the caravan?” one activist we met in Mexico city wondered. Certainly, at the very least the mainstream media exagerated the size of the caravan by a factor of almost 2, and the king of #fakenews himself spread wild claims about “unknown middle easterners” perhaps being of the mix.

Actually, after trying to track down two caravans ourselves, the first after it was already on its journey through Mexico and the second just last week as it was supposedly about to form, I’m beginning to wonder if these caravans are organised at all. Or at least not in the sense that we would generally expect such a huge event to be organised – i.e. a small group of people making a call-out and organisers being “in the know” while the rest follow. Instead, certainly this last one seems to have been organised in a completely decentralised fashion using social media platforms, and might have had no “organisers” at all. A rumour of a caravan quickly disseminated through social media and then mainstream media could be enough for one to form. In that sense, anyone can “organise” a caravan, or it might be more accurate to say that they organise themselves spontaneously.

That isn’t to say that the group will necessarily remain a fluid, horizontally organised, co-operative, organism. Certainly, my impression of the several thousand people gathered in Mexico city last November, was of a hierarchically organised group, with a majority of people waiting to hear what ‘they’ told them. In fact the migrant solidarity organisation Pueblos sin Fronteras has been accused by the Mexican government of organising these caravans.

The uncertainty can play into the hands of any would-be organisers, since anyone who can be identified as an organiser is at risk of being criminalised – one administrator of a WhatsApp group set up for last year’s caravan reported having been arrested. The advantage is that if one administrator is repressed, anyone with a smart phone can take their place, which makes the caravan itself harder to quash. On the other hand, it means that anyone, whatever their agenda, can use these platforms to encourage vulnerable people to act in the interests of the powerful.

What is certain is that the formation of a caravan of thousands of people, fleeing violence and facing a dangerous journey ahead together, is a nebulous affair involving media organisations, special interest groups, people talking on social media, but most of all it is made up of courageous individuals who decide to take their fate into their own hands and stand and march in solidarity with thousands of others doing the same.

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