Migrating in “Bulla” to Feel Protected

Migrant Caravans and Social Media as Experiences of Support and Protection for Two Honduran Adolescents

Preamble

In 2018, the Central American region, Mexico, and the United States witnessed in astonishment an extraordinary phenomenon, albeit not a new one: the emergence of what is known as migrant caravans or migrant exodus. The gathering of large groups of people, the majority initially from Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala, encouraged by different calls to action, came together to migrate in unity through Mexico with the hope of reaching the southern border of the United States. 

Today we know these caravans did not begin in 2018, but long before, with the caravans of mothers in search of their missing migrant children. We also know that the big 2018 and 2019 caravans that united more than 7000 people originated to a large extent due to migrant criminalization and persecution policies implemented in Mexico during President Enrique Peña Nieto’s six-year administration (2012-2018) under the “Southern Border Program.” Caravans serve as a collective strategy for visibility, support, and protection from the increasing danger and violence migrants face during the journey across Mexico. Caravans are also a response to risks, obstacles, and difficulties imposed on the way by authorities and gangs, drug trafficking cartels, and other criminal agents. 

A critically important feature of the first caravans was the presence of large groups of mothers with babies, and also children and adolescents, that represented up to a third of migrant persons, most accompanied by both parents, or individual mothers, fathers or grandmothers. In the caravan, these mothers, fathers, and caregivers could identify and build collective help, care, and develop support strategies. These strategies helped them flee and reach safety, exercising their right to migrate without having to tear their family apart and be separated from their children. Caravans became not only a possibility to migrate without risking their own lives but to do it, safeguarding the human rights of thousands of children and adolescents not to get left behind, to have the opportunity to live with their parents, and have a family.

Besides the contingent of infants, young girls and boys, the caravans had numerous groups of adolescents and youth that migrated unaccompanied by an adult relative or a guardian. For them, the caravan was also a space of safety and protection, of autonomy, of capacity for action—personal and collective—and a way of finding their own identity. 

Boatmen at the Suchiate River pass under the Rodolfo Robles Bridge. The river isfull of people from the migrant caravan awaiting entry into the Mexican territory. Photograph: Ernesto Álvarez.

The Caravan

Escape route and safety strategy

Until October 13, 2018, for Norman, a young 17-year old Honduran, migrating to the United States had always been a possibility, but not necessarily a pressing choice, because he knew it was fraught with danger. His middle-class adolescent life in a provincial family of Honduras, where he had access to education, leisure time with his friends, and comfort was out of reach for most young people. His life was a counter to the idea of migrating and allowed him to delay the decision to leave. However, one day he had to face intimidation and attempts of recruitment by the mara that controls his neighborhood.

Before the caravan, I thought of leaving, but I wasn’t in a hurry to come because I was studying and all, but with this that happened, I didn’t have any other choice than to leave school and join the caravan.

Norman

Hermosillo, Sonora, enero de 2019.

Members of the mara had visited the school many times looking for Norman to force him to sell drugs. He arrived at the public school a few months earlier, but it had been impossible to go unnoticed. His social class, the way he spoke, his social capital, and the knowledge he brought to the classroom gave him away. His peers said, “This güirro (boy) ran out of money and ended up here, in the neighborhood.” The mareros—or members of the maras, followed him when he left public high school to return to his first private school. One afternoon, they sentenced him nearby. If he wasn’t willing to sell for them, then he would have to join a group of car thieves. They told him that the next day they would come to get him to “mark” (tattoo) him. 

Days before this threat, Norman had heard endless announcements of the forming of a migrant caravan to cross to Mexico and then through the country to reach the US border. You heard them on the radio, at school, neighbors voiced them, and above all, the message was omnipresent on social media, particularly Facebook and WhatsApp friend groups. Everybody in his environment spoke of it. Some peers had even changed their profiles on social media to announce they were leaving in the caravan that would depart in the following days. Others hadn’t yet completed their registration in school and didn’t attend classes that week. He remembers sensing an atmosphere of urgency and euphoria. 

The day he was told he’d be marked to join the mara, Norman entered his home, grabbed a backpack, packed a couple of changes of clothes, a cap, his two cellphones, headphones, a backup battery, and other belongings. He told his father he’d be visiting his mother, who was living in a neighboring city taking care of his grandmother, asked him for money on the pretext of handing it to his mother. At home, they asked him when he would be back, and he answered he wouldn’t take long. Instead of heading to his grandmother’s, Norman went to the San Pedro Sula Great Metropolitan Central Bus Station. “On the way, I saw ladies that entered their homes, turned off everything, locked and went out with their suitcase and holding their children’s hands,” he recounts. When he got to the station, he was impressed by the number of people gathered there. The atmosphere of joy and expectation was tangible. Early that morning, the Central American migrant caravan left San Pedro Sula, heading to the Guatemala-Mexico border.

Tijuana, Baja California Norte. Emiliano plays with an American flag tied to his scooter. Photograph: Ernesto Álvarez.

Two years before, on the Omoa Cortés, Honduras, coastal zone, Edilson left his home to save his life and left to the Guatemala border. That same day members of the mara who wanted to settle some outstanding debts with his brother, then 17 years old, killed his father. Edison was 13. For the better part of two years, he hid with his older brother in Guatemala. Edilson did any kind of job he could find carpenter, blacksmith, loading stuff in a market, baker, and fisherman. Towards the end of 2018, he received news that the migrant caravan was already in Guatemala City and advancing towards Mexico’s border. By then, they had spent a couple of months fearing the maras were close to finding them. They had seen the maras in the neighborhood where they lived and hanging around their workplaces. They didn’t think too hard; joining the caravan was the only way to cross into Mexico without the gang members watching the borders of Central America, identifying them. The next day they got on a bus to reach the caravan, which was nearing the Guatemala-Mexico border. Two weeks after they joined the migrant exodus, his brother, the one who received the original threat and who had returned to Omoa when he turned 19, was attacked by the mara. He was hit by six bullets that almost ended his life. His brother lost a kidney and partial mobility in one of his legs. 

Norman and Edilson didn’t know each other. They were not aware they were both part of the same exodus. They also didn’t know that later they would become friends. Their intense experience involved violent detention and new institutional efforts to protect migrant children and adolescents in Mexico. Norman and Edilson traveled for several weeks with the caravan made up of about 3000 people that entered Mexico through the southern border on October 19, 2018.

Walking together

encounter, collaboration and solidarity

Tijuana, Baja California Norte.  A man with his daughter form part of the Central American exodus and the neighbors to receive their donations.  Photograph: Ernesto Álvarez.

Despite traveling in the same caravan and passing by the same places, Norman and Edilson’s experiences were very different. Norman was older from a middle-class background. He has an extroverted personality and is very sure of himself. He also had an impressive network of contacts in Honduras, Mexico, and the United States. Norman also had a skillful communications strategy in social media, managed with his two cellphones. This strategy allowed him to be in permanent contact with his family, feel accompanied, share news on the trip, and post pictures of the places he visited. 

From Norman’s perspective, the journey didn’t have to be a problematic event or filled with suffering; to travel in a group allowed enjoyment, talks, spaces of trust to vent distress, get advice and support. In each city, but especially in Mexico City, Norman and his group of friends found the chance to visit tourist sites with young activists and communicators from alternative media. He posted many and varied selfies and photos on Instagram. He was able to forget he was migrating and fleeing, and he enjoyed the trip as a movement of learning and enjoyment. 

He had constant chats on social media with friends his age. These conversations were also a vital element during the trip to build the mental strength that would allow him to continue and develop a mobility strategy. His friends in Honduras always questioned him on the details of the trip. They also inquired about the difficulty of walking so many kilometers and how to meet food, accommodation, and other needs. Norman happily shared his experience. He encouraged them to join the following caravans and let them know the strategies he was learning. At the same time, his friends living in the United States cheered-him up during the hardest moments, telling him that the troubles found on the way will be worth it once he finds himself on the other side of the border. They told him about their own experience when crossing the wall and gave him advice on what to say when he surrendered to border agents in the United States and applies for asylum. The conversations on what to and what not to say during interviews with immigration officials, and how to sustain only one version of his “story” during the process were frequent, and Norman had an exciting variety of examples. Friends and cousins in both countries followed his journey almost as if it was a reality show, and Norman posted daily updates with the main events of the trip.

 Tijuana, Baja California Norte. A boy collects food handed by  neighbors acting in solidarity with members of the Central American exodus. Photograph: Ernesto Álvarez.

Far from being a trivial act, this strategy of presence and communication through media was essential for his psychological preparedness, to receive tips, and learn about different possibilities in case his original plan of reaching the border and seeking asylum at the checkpoint failed. In general, his strategy served to have a clear idea of what was still to come. It was thanks to a cellphone that he was able to notify a group of young activists he had met in Mexico City, immediately after his detention. The members of the group quickly moved to contact colleagues in academia and other groups of young human rights advocates to try to stop his deportation. 

On the other hand, Edilson came from a completely different background in a highly marginalized rural area in Honduras. Considerably younger, shy and inexperienced, with less social capital and support networks, without a cellphone of his own or other means of communication, he depended almost entirely on his older brother to get information, plan and build any future strategy. For this reason, his capture and separation from his older brother in Tijuana was a heavy blow that left him insecure and frightened. He arrived at the facilities of the National Institute for Migration (INM) in Hermosillo after a more than ten-hour trip aboard the “doghouse” (the name given by migrants to the INM vehicles). Barely having had a bite to eat, he wasn’t allowed to go to the toilet and the officers found it pretty easy to make him sign his deportation order. 

For him, the communication with his family and help networks was a more difficult task because, in his home community, a neighborhood of fishermen on the rural outskirts of Omoa, internet access and social media was much more limited. His meeting with Norman in the government shelter made it possible to contact networks of activists and advocates.

Companions on the Road

«In my new friends I found the strength to continue»

When they related their experience as part of the migrant caravan, Norman and Edilson recalled a sensation of protection, anonymity, and support. The possibility of a collective migration was a crucial spark for the decision to set off on their journey. For Norman, who was a few months shy of 18 years and had no experience of mobility, the caravan represented a unique opportunity to reach the border and a better chance to qualify for refugee status as an “unaccompanied minor” in the United States. When the first friends he made during the journey started to change their mind, some of them decided not to continue. The fact that he was traveling in a caravan gave him the courage he needed to make new friends, feel safe and keep going.

I made lots of friends. When we got on buses, we chatted, and at the next place where the caravan stopped, we’d meet to take a stroll with my friends from Costa Rica, Guatemala, Mexico, and three from Colombia, I think.

Norman, Hermosillo, Sonora, January 2019.

Tepotzotlán, State of Mexico. A barefoot girl amidst several migrants with feet protruding from the truck that will be giving them a ride on their journey. Photograph: Ernesto Álvarez.

Norman recalls with particular joy his stay at the Jesús Martínez “Palillo” Stadium shelter in Mexico City. There they spent the most significant number of days and could deepen friendships with a group of adolescents of different countries and ages to venture into the city and visit various tourist sites. In Edilson’s case, who traveled from Guatemala to Tijuana with his 24-year-old brother, the caravan was also a chance to make friends his age and visit cities he “had never seen.” However, for him, the real sense of safety stemmed from the possibility of traveling accompanied by his 24-year-old brother. For this reason, when INM agents detained him in Tijuana, separating them, the feeling of vulnerability and insecurity was sudden and extreme.

Furthermore, for Edilson, the caravan experience had been idyllic because it became the setting where he first felt himself to be a “migrant.” When the caravan entered the Chiapas border region, in southern Mexico, he witnessed and suffered the rejection of some of the inhabitants the caravan passed:

For me, [being] a migrant is like being a reject. Because some people look down on you just for being a migrant. Only because one is migrating, they tell you, “what is this guy doing here.” Because they have told me so. They have told me so in Pijijiapan, in Ixtepec. I started feeling that when I arrived in Mexico. The thing is I was on the street and only because I spoke the way I am, Honduran, they asked what I was doing there, that I’d better go back to my country.

Edilson, Hermosillo, Sonora, January 2019.

Norman recuerda con particular júbilo la estancia en el albergue Jesús Martínez “Palillo” de la Ciudad de México, pues allí permanecieron la mayor cantidad de días y le fue posible profundizar los lazos de amistad con un grupo de adolescentes de otras nacionalidades y edades para aventurarse a conocer la ciudad y visitar múltiples sitios turísticos. En el caso de Edilson, que hizo el trayecto desde Guatemala hasta Tijuana acompañado de su hermano de 24 años, la caravana también fue una oportunidad para conocer amigos de su edad y ciudades que “nunca había visto”. No obstante, la verdadera sensación de seguridad para él provenía de poder viajar acompañado de su hermano de 24 años. Por eso, cuando agentes del inm lo detuvieron en Tijuana, separándolos, la sensación de vulnerabilidad e inseguridad fue súbita y extrema. Además, para Edilson la experiencia de la caravana no había sido idílica, porque se convirtió también en el contexto en el que por primera vez se sintió “migrante”; cuando la caravana entró a la región fronteriza de Chiapas, en el sur de México, fue testigo y receptor de reacciones de rechazo de algunos habitantes de los lugares por los que transitaba: 

Tapachula, Chiapas.  Unaccompanied minor from the Central American exodus finds a place to sleep in the Miguel Hidalgo Plaza Photograph: Ernesto Álvarez.

Listen, I suffered in the Caravan. I had to endure hunger, cold, thirst, hours without sleep. From Jalisco to Sonora, and from Sonora to Tijuana, it takes three days on a bus, and without food. I only had a bottle of water. We had no money, and we had to endure until we got to Tijuana, and there they gave us food. Man, you were hungry! I slept on the bus, not to feel so hungry. We didn’t get any food. The buses left one after the other, and we couldn’t eat. We’d spent all the money we had on us; I couldn’t take it anymore

Edilson, Hermosillo, Sonora, January 2019.

ABUSE AT IMMIGRATION CONTROLS

Detention and Resisting Deportation

Tapachula, Chiapas.  Unaccompanied minor from the Central American exodus finds a place to sleep in the Miguel Hidalgo Plaza Photograph: Ernesto Álvarez.

Norman was detained by immigration authorities in Northwestern Mexico when they intercepted several caravan buses in Sonora. He defended himself and denounced a violent detention process, with abuse of power and physical violence. When the migrants were already under the protection of INM authorities, Norman and Edilson suffered constant pressure and intimidation, even from the Child Protection Officer (CPO), who should have comforted and protected them. Both denounced that the CPO scolded and pressured them to make them sign their deportation and to desist any intention of seeking asylum.

Tijuana, Baja California Norte. A boy from the Central American exodus tries to see what is behind the federal police line blocking the way to the San Isidro checkpoint. Photograph: Ernesto Álvarez.

 

When they made us get off the bus, they did not do it politely, but called us Catrachos (Hondurans), sons of bit…, get off, and they hit us. I felt terrible because they hit the others that came with me hard. They didn’t hit me because I told them I was a minor and I was recording them, that they shouldn’t touch me because they’d be in trouble. From there, when we got to the migration office, they had us locked up; I felt bad because all the while, they’d call me to make me sign the deportation, and I said no. A woman immigration officer told me that if I wasn’t thinking of signing that, I would stay locked up for who knew how long. I eventually told her yes because I knew things were going to be that way, they did it to intimidate me. 

When we were at the migration office, they had us in a room, they had the mattresses, and all of us were there, we only went out of the room to eat, and then they put us back there. There we were locked up. They did not inform me of my rights, but thank God I have journalist friends in Mexico City, and I had talked to them, and they had explained all that, that’s why I knew some things. Otherwise, they would have intimidated me, and I would’ve signed the deportation. But no, at the immigration office, they did not explain anything, that we had a right to seek asylum, nothing of the sort. They just told us to sign the deportation. 

[The day] when they took me to the shelter [for minors] they just told me to grab my things, I asked where they were taking me, and they didn’t say a word. They put me in the doghouse, and there I saw they were taking me to the place for minors. They welcomed me to the shelter. All the staff was out, they hugged me, asked me my name, showed me the premises, gave me all sorts of stuff, the bed, then they fed me. There I felt good. There was a girl who explained everything, that one could seek asylum for being a minor, but that the process could take very long. However, she didn’t know how long, because she had never seen a case like that because those who came from the immigration office arrived having already signed the deportation. People only arrived there for a time until their flights left. But they did explain a lot, and a psychologist also explained a lot of that. They always had a psychologist for us at 5 pm. He explained all the dangers of migrating and such. We did feel good there. 

But often, immigration officials came to intimidate us. I had tried to seek asylum to gain some time, so they wouldn’t deport me, because they had already bought the return ticket to Honduras for my friend and I, without us signing any deportation. Then one Saturday the immigration people came and told us: “On Monday all of you will leave for your country,” and when we saw that they came on Monday to bring them all and they told us: “And what do you think? Where are your bags?” I told them I wasn’t leaving. “But why? You already have a ticket.” They told me. Then I said: You are not going to shout at me because I didn’t sign any deportation and you had no reason to buy a ticket. Then they called my friend and me and put us in an office and called the Honduran Consulate and the man from the consulate scolded us, he said we were bad-mannered. 

The person from immigration came to tell us that asylum was not a joke, that we could not change our minds, but we [did it] to gain time because we didn’t want them to send us back. But one day my friend suggested it would be better if they’d send us back to Honduras, and once there we would return quickly. It was then when we said yes, that we would cancel the asylum petition to do that. When we told them that the immigration people told us that even if we canceled the procedure, they were going to send us back to Honduras in two and a half months because the tickets were too expensive at the time. Then they took us to the shelter, and the woman from Immigration came back with some documents for us to sign and send to the COMAR, and then she scolded us because she told us very harshly that she was only wasting time with us. Then I told her that if wasting time was her job, why did she work there. And then she got angry with me because I answered back. But I didn’t like the way she spoke to us. And then she angrily grabbed the documents and left, but my friend and I already had a plan to escape. We requested asylum to gain time and escape, and join the caravan. 

Norman, Hermosillo, Sonora, January 2019.

Edilson experienced detention differently from Norman. Edilson was detained on November 25 in Tijuana. That day, a large group of members of the caravan, that had moved to the El Chaparral checkpoint to communicate their claims for international protection, came face to face with Mexican authorities and officers of the Border Patrol, which encircled them and attacked them.

Tijuana, Baja California Norte. A family runs from the tear gas shot by US border patrol agents against the protest by the Central American caravan in Mexico demanding their right to free movement and to seek asylum. Photograph: Ernesto Álvarez

I already was in Tijuana, I had arrived there, but one day my brother and I separated from the caravan. They asked us for documents, and since we hadn’t any, they took us away. Then they told us [INM personnel]: 

 

“Well, you are deported.” And we are disappointed because we had suffered so much! We had experienced cold, hunger, and heat. The immigration officer tells me: “Are you with your mother?” And I answer no. 

“Then you are going to Hermosillo,” he tells me. 

 

Then they brought me here in one of those doghouses. They didn’t give me food nor water. They didn’t let me pee. I had to hold in the urge to pee in the immigration building. I kept it in for about twelve hours. I endured hunger and thirst. And boy, was it scorching in that van! I came to eat, and they gave me a little water. I told them, 

 

“Why did you separate me from my brother?”

“Because you’re not with your mother,” they told me. 

“But [my brother] was family,” I told them. 

“And where is he now?” they asked me. 

“Well, he is in Tijuana. “Why did you separate me from him?” 

“Well, we are going to send you to a shelter.” The immigration people told me. 

 

They did send me there the next day and the girls welcomed me. I didn’t eat until the following day; they fed me and gave me water. Then they interviewed me and everything. Next day the girl from immigration came, and she gave it to me, she said: 

 

“Sign here” Then, very corruptly, she said: “Sign here, I don’t have time.” 

 

Then I was scared because I didn’t know what I was signing, she wouldn’t let me read it. 

 

“Don’t read it.”, she told me. 

“Sign it quickly.” 

“What is it?” 

“A deportation.” “Sign it quickly,” she said. 

 

Then I signed. After a week, they told me I had to wait for months in there, like a criminal. They don’t let you out on the street, nor to breathe even a little air. One felt bad. It was awful to be locked up. You feel depressed locked up in there. Then I decided to escape because I couldn’t be there for two months only to be deported. In the end, they didn’t explain anything about that; they only told me: “Sign the deportation!”

They didn’t explain anything to me if I could seek asylum or anything. First, they told me that they’d deport me in 15 days and then two months. I couldn’t be there for so long.

“Edilson” Hermosillo, January 2019.

Tijuana, Baja California Norte. Fernando plays with plastic tubes in front of the Benito Juárez shelter in the northern area of the city. Photograph: Ernesto Álvarez.

Given the frustration of feeling locked up, without access to information and resources that the young people they had been in contact with could offer, as well as the impossibility of finding another way of avoiding deportation, Norman and Edilson decided to escape from the shelter. They planned a strategy that involved going to the nearest church in case they were separated during the journey. They fled together one night when there was scant surveillance. What followed was an intense experience of defense of their right to migrate by academics and activists. It would not have been possible without the solidarity of many families that gave them sanctuary during the first hours after fleeing, and the many weeks that the defense procedure ended up taking. 

After many weeks of intense lobbying and negotiations with local and national authorities, they avoided deportation, and they gathered enough support so both of them could reach the border and appear before US immigration authorities at the Nogales checkpoint, on the border between Sonora and Arizona. After Edilson spent one month and a half and Norman almost three months in a shelter for unaccompanied migrant minors in Houston, both were sent to their relatives in different cities in the northeastern United States. Edilson now lives with his aunt and uncle and attends a public high school in New Jersey. Norman graduated from high school and is working and studying to enter college in New York. Their respective migration proceedings are pending, and they receive support from civil society organizations involved in the legal representation of migrant children and adolescents. Their bravery and tenacity to hold on to the dream of reaching the United States to start a new life is a sign of great resistance and rebelliousness. Their stories demonstrate an ability to face violence and oppressive regimes that seek to subject them to a life of vulnerability and precariousness, especially when these regimes offer them few or none alternatives, in today’s environment, where the many barriers set impede the right to migrate. Norman and Edilson’s histories show us that hospitality and solidarity are still potent spaces and tools for resistance, hope, and emancipation. 

MIGRANT CHILDREN AND ADOLESCENTS ON THEIR JOURNEY THROUGH MEXICO

Detention of Minors in 2018

%

Of Detainees are from the "Northern Triangle"

%

Are Unaccompanied Children

Detentions in Mexico

Statistics presented by the INM (National Migration Institute) and Segob (Ministry of Interior) in 2016 and 2018 show a steady increase in the number of detentions and deportations of children and adolescents (C&A) under 18 since 2019 in Mexico. This phenomenon had a record increase in 2014 when it went from 9,630 in 2013 to a total of 23,096. This figure represents a 140% increase. According to official statistics, the number rose to 38,514 cases in 2015, a 66% increase.  In 2016, the number increased again, reaching 40,114 cases, the highest number to date. This tendency stopped in 2017, when it decreased to numbers lower to those in 2014, with 18,300 occurrences. However, in 2018, the number of events involving C&A was back up again and reached 31,717 (Segob, 2018; Segob, 2016).

What Is the Situation?

Government statistics show that, up until 2016, children and adolescents from the countries of the so-called “Northern Triangle of Central America”— Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador—represented 98% of the total number of foreign minor migrants “made to appear” before Mexican immigration authorities (Segob, 2016). In 2015, the largest group of foreign C&A detained in Mexico were Guatemalan nationals, while in 2016, the largest demographic of detainees was that of children and adolescents from El Salvador, and in 2017—though there was a downward tendency—again Guatemalan C&A reached first place in the statistics. In contrast, in 2018, Honduran C&A detainees surpassed those of other nationalities, but with only a small difference over the number of Guatemalans: 13,780 and 13,515 cases, respectively.

During 2012 and 2013, the highest number of C&A traveling on their own through Mexico was reported. This was defined as C&A on their own, or without the company of a relative or an adult guardian. In both years, the percentage of C&A that identified as unaccompanied was 54.4% in 2012, and 58.1% in 2013. The lowest number reported of unaccompanied C&A was in 2018, with 32.8% of the total foreign number of children and adolescents compelled to appear before the INM. Almost every year, the most commonly reported nationality of C&A traveling unaccompanied has been Guatemalan, followed by Honduran. 

How to Get Involved

Mexico has become a place of destination, long-term permanence, and also a refuge for thousands of Central American children and adolescents, as well as C&A from other countries. The state and civil society must preserve their right to migrate, to receive humanitarian help, and international protection. Your support is needed to sustain the vast network of shelters that aid and protect them.

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