Before 2014, most Central Americans headed toward the U.S. border rode through Mexico on the freight trains collectively called La Bestia. Hundreds of people could be seen clinging to the tops of train cars or riding in between them. The situation changed dramatically in August of that year when Mexico instituted Programa Frontera Sur (PFS, the Southern Border Program). When the program was announced, Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto said it was designed to protect the migrants themselves. Sr. Leticia Gutiérrez of the Scalabrinian Migrant Group disagreed. “The objective was to prevent migrants from climbing on the train...and to detain them,” she said, “and in that it has been successful.”
Although some Central Americans still ride La Bestia, many trains pass by with few or no people on top of them. Police and immigration agents are stationed along the tracks, preventing people from climbing on and sometimes forcibly removing people. Train companies are employing custodios (private security) to keep people off trains and have erected cement barriers next to the tracks. Migrants and their advocates report that threats and robberies by police, immigration, and security are routine. “We have known about some cases in 2016 where migrants were executed by [custodios],” said Claudia León Ang, the Advocacy Coordinator at the Jesuit Service to Migrants in Mexico. Denied access to trains, more people have been making most of the journey to the United States on foot. Although riding La Bestia was dangerous, the presence of hundreds of people afforded some protection. After PFS started, people began traveling alone or in small groups, leaving them more vulnerable to predation. “It was bad before. It is worse now,” León Ang told me. It’s estimated that 80 percent of the people making the journey through Mexico will be assaulted. According to León Ang, “Seven in ten women will be raped.” This explains why people began banding together in what have come to be described as “caravans.” “People are aware of the dangers of the journey,” said Francesca Fontanini, a spokesperson for the United Nations High Commission on Refugees (UNHCR). “Traveling alone isn’t secure. Members of a caravan...feel more protected; there is a decreased risk.”
The first caravan left Guatemala in mid-October and the largest, estimated at about seven thousand people, reached Tijuana in mid-November. Several smaller caravans have been traveling through Mexico since then. The one that arrived at Casa Peregrino left Guatemala on October 31, reaching Mexico City on November 18. “One day walking, one day on a bus,” said Fernando, a twenty-five-year-old Honduran who showed me the scars he has on his chest, knife wounds courtesy of Calle 18. The caravan is believed to be the fourth to have reached the city and at its peak included about seven hundred people.
I asked several people traveling with the caravan how it was organized. “It is not organized,” said Luís, a Honduran. “People just seem to know when to leave, when to stop walking.” Rafaél, a migrant from El Salvador added, “Somebody’s in charge but I don’t know who.” Although the journey through Mexico is still difficult for those traveling in a caravan, it has at least been safer. “Mexican people have treated us well,” Luís told me. Fontanini, of the UNHCR, confirmed this. “People in the caravan were very impressed with the help they received from Mexicans,” she said. “They were given food, clothing, rides.” A large police presence has also ensured people’s safety; dozens of officers were posted inside and outside the shelter.
The accommodations at Casa Peregrino are basic. Women wash clothes by hand in concrete sinks and hang them to dry on lines, walls, or banisters. “We sleep on the floor on a thin mattress,” said Fernando. “We are migrants, we do not get beds.” There isn’t much to do except wait, so people sit and chat or play checkers out front. More enterprising people buy packs of cigarettes and sell singles, called sueltos, for five pesos, or three cigarettes for ten pesos (about fifty cents).
Many line up at a table where the UNHCR provides information about obtaining asylum in Mexico. Because the probability of getting asylum in the United States has dropped to just above zero, applications for asylum in Mexico have skyrocketed. As recently as 2015, out of the four hundred thousand Central Americans who entered Mexico, only 3,424 applied for asylum there. In 2017, when between 450,000 and 500,000 Central Americans entered the country, there were 14,596 applications, of which 2,825 have so far been approved. (The final number isn’t available yet.) “Through June of 2018, there were already fourteen thousand applications,” said Fontanini. Most of these were filed in Tapachula, Chiapas, Mexico’s southernmost state. Applications are supposed to be reviewed within forty-five working days but the wait is now stretching to six months. According to León Ang, some applicants have to wait as long as a year.
But not everyone thinks Mexico is a good option. For one thing, it can be almost as violent as the places the refugees are fleeing. Homicides are at an all-time high. Nor are there many good work opportunities for the migrants. “You cannot earn much here,” said Mauricio, a Salvadoran bus driver. He said he’d return to El Salvador if he can’t get asylum in the United States.
Some people have already returned. Audán León, a volunteer with Puente Humanitaria, told me that, just a few days after reaching the shelter, about a hundred people—exhausted from the journey, uncertain about asylum, and tired of waiting—left to go home. Many who remain say they will apply for asylum in Canada, although that may not be a realistic option. Archbishop Leonardo Marin Saavedra, of the Latin American Anglican Church in Canada, visited the shelter one day and announced that, when he returned to Toronto, he would “present a proposal to [Prime Minister] Justin Trudeau” that Canada accept Central American asylum-seekers, saying that Canada has planes and boats it could use to transport people there. He urged Central Americans to “have faith” because the process would take at least three months. When I asked if his church would support migrants remaining in Mexico during that time, he texted, “The Mexican government or the international community must solve the migrants’ stay in Mexican territory...we HAVE [emphasis his] no resources.” Fontanini said that the UNHCR had no information about the archbishop’s proposal, and neither did the Canadian embassy. When I asked if he already had a meeting scheduled with Trudeau, Marin Saavedra texted back, “No.”