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‘In God’s hands’: Why members of the migrant caravan left home for an uncertain future

Central American migrants gathered inside and outside a church in Puebla, Mexico on April 7, 2018, for a caravan hoped to travel to the U.S. border drawing the ire of President Trump.

Nick Oza/azcentral.com

PUEBLA, Mexico – One early morning in March, Juan Carlos Guevara arrived home from his job driving a taxi in San Salvador, the capital of El Salvador.

What happened next caused the 51-year-old man and his wife to abruptly flee El Salvador, leaving behind their two children in hiding with relatives.

As he pulled up to the curb, Guevara saw a group of about eight gang members dragging a neighbor couple out of their house. All of the gang members were in their teens, as young as 14 or 15, Guevara recalled.

They had blindfolded the couple and tied their hands behind backs. Then without warning, the teens shot the couple to death. Guevara did nothing, terrified they would shoot him next.

Later that day, three members of the same gang showed up at Guevara’s house with a warning: Tell anyone what you saw, and you and your wife are dead.

Guevara took them at their word.

“The maras don’t joke around,” Guevara said, using the Spanish word in Central America for gangs.

Guevara is one of the hundreds of Central American migrants traveling through Mexico as part of a caravan that has drawn international attention, and prompted President Donald Trump to deploy National Guard troops to help seal the southwest border.

SEE ALSO: Arizona Gov. Ducey will send 150 National Guard troops to Mexico border

After leaving Tapachula, a town in Mexico’s Chiapas state that borders Guatemala on March 25, the caravan arrived Friday in Puebla, Mexico’s fourth-largest city. The caravan will proceed Monday to Mexico City, about two hours to the north, where it will officially end on Wednesday due to pressure from the governments of Mexico and the United States.

Organizers estimated as many as 1,600 Central American migrants joined the caravan during the first couple of days, the vast majority of them Hondurans fleeing poverty, gang violence and political instability.

RELATED: How a Central American migrant caravan grew so big that it unintentionally may have backfired

But by Sunday the caravan had dwindled to about 553 people, according to Rodrigo Abeja, a Mexican citizen coordinating the caravan for Pueblo Sin Fronteras, a bi-national humanitarian organization based in San Diego.

Those remaining include about 212 men, 130 women, 171 children, and 19 babies who are less than a year old, Abeja said. Also traveling with the caravan are 21 gay and transgender migrants fleeing persecution in their home countries, Abeja said.

The migrants are staying at four shelters in Puebla, including a church converted into a shelter.

 

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Roughly 630 migrants — about half are women and children — arrived by bus in Puebla, Mexico, on April 7, 2018. They are staying in four shelters.
Wochit

At a park across the street from the church, women nursed babies, young boys kicked soccer balls on a cement basketball court, and children climbed on playground equipment. Inside the church,lawyers gave presentations on the rights of migrants and how to apply for asylum in Mexico and the U.S.

Over two days of interviews with the migrants, it seemed almost every one knew someone who had been assassinated by gangs or had witnessed a gang assassination themselves.

They described walking, hitching rides, traveling by bus, hopping freight trains, and sleeping on the street after leaving their countries to join the caravan in hopes of either remaining in Mexico or reaching the United States.

Here are some of their stories.

A murder, then a threat

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The neighborhood where 15-year-old Axel Girón’s family lives in Tegucigalpa, the capital of Honduras is controlled by the Barrio 18 gang. But Axel’s girlfriend lives in a neighborhood controlled by another gang, MS-13.

The penalty for crossing from one gang territory into another is often death.

FACT CHECK: How many MS-13 gang members are in the United States?

“They told me if I want to go to the other side, they would kill me,” Axel said, sitting at a metal table in the park.

His parents decided it was too dangerous to raise Axel in Honduras. They left in February, joining the migrant caravan in Tapachula.

About three months ago, Axel said his uncle was killed by gangs following a dispute over “impuestos de guerra” — war taxes — they said he owed. He collected bus fees for a living, and the gangs demanded he pay them a war tax.

Then came threats against Axel. Gang members called him over to a street corner, where they delivered a warning that they would kill him if he went to the neighborhood controlled by MS-13.

Axel was sitting aloneas he spoke about his ordeal. His parents had gone to beg for money in the street, to continue their journey.

‘They treat me like a sister’

When 18-year-old Claudia Lisseth Garcia Sorto told her mother she was leaving El Salvador for the United States, she “cried and cried.”

Female migrants face many dangers, including sexual assault, especially teenagers traveling alone like Claudia.

She was 17 when she left her home in the city of La Union in January 2017.

For three days she hitched rides from El Salvador, through Guatemala, and then to Tapachula. At night she slept on the street, behind stores and houses.

Nothing bad happened along the way, “Gracias a Dios,” she said.

In Tapachula, a woman found her sleeping in a park and took her in.

“She gave me a place to sleep, clothes, shoes, food. She didn’t charge me anything,” said Claudia, who wore a crocheted hat, woven to look like a character from the “Minion” movie.

Claudia lived with the woman for over a year. Then a friend told her about the migrant caravan leaving from Tapachula on March 25.

Claudia saw her chance. Traveling with a large group would be much safer than traveling alone.

As she talked, other teens arrived with trays of food they had received from volunteers helping feed the migrants.

And her mom? Claudia said she hadn’t talked to her since she left El Salvador, more than a year ago.

“I don’t know her number and I don’t have a phone,” Claudia said.

A teen boy from the caravan came up behind her and gave her a hug.

The other teens traveling with the caravan, “they treat me like a sister, like family,” she said.

Then she left to get food.

‘I was afraid he would try and take her’

Damari Garcia Licona kept a watchful eye on her 3-year-old daughter, Emeli, on the playground. The girl was climbing dangerously high on a slide.

Every so often, she paused and yelled, “Emeli!”

She was hesitant to talk about the girl’s father. Then it came out: He was the reason she joined the caravan.

Garcia Licona said she is from Departamento Cortez, in Honduras. She was traveling with her 25-year-old brother. They were headed for the United States, hoping to ask for asylum.

Her husband has many “vices,” she said. He smokes. He drinks. He might be involved with the gangs.

She said he doesn’t do anything to help raise their daughter. So she doesn’t allow him to see her.

“If he helped me it would be a different story,” she said.

Garcia Licona said the economic situation and political crisis in Honduras was horrible. She used to work as a seamstress at a clothing factory, but lost her job several months ago. Then there are the gangs and the violence.

On top of that, her husband had become more aggressive.

“I was afraid he would try and take her,” she said of her daughter. “That’s why I decided to leave.”

‘You have to keep fighting all of your life’

Clutching the arm of her wheelchair, Irma Viviana de Ortiz Reyes squatted down on the ground and began feeling around with her hand.

“I can’t find my bag. I can’t find my bag,” she yelled to no one in particular.

There was no bag on the ground, but she didn’t know that. Ortiz Reyes is blind.

At 80, the Guatemalan woman is the oldest migrant in the caravan. The bag she was looking for contained her pills.

She wore a trucker’s cap, with a red toothbrush wedged behind one ear, similar to the way accountants carry a pencil.

A man arrived, a migrant from El Salvador, and helped her back into her wheelchair.

It turned out the bag was under her heavily soiled coat all along, tied around her body with a cord.

The woman is from Guatemala. When asked why she had embarked on such a difficult journey at her age, the woman raised her arms towards the heavens.

“You have to keep fighting all of your life for a better life if you want to get to heaven,” she said.

Another man arrived carrying a Styrofoam tray of food. He sat on the ground under a tree and introduced himself as Jhonatan Levin Ortiz Reyes, 32.

The old woman, he said, had adopted him when he was a boy because his mother couldn’t take care of him. He said she had raised him in Guatemala, but he had been born in Mexico City.

He had documents that would prove his place of birth. That is why he was bringing the woman to Mexico City, to help him prove he was a Mexican citizen so he could get legal papers to work in Mexico.

Once there, he would get her medical care for her various ailments, and maybe an operation for her eyes.

“I swear I am not taking her against her will,” he said. “If one day she wants to return to Guatemala, she can.”

‘They are in God’s hands’

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On Sunday afternoon, migrants gathered in a circle under a huge tarp to celebrate before leaving for Mexico City, and an uncertain future.

President Donald Trump has characterized the migrant caravan as hordes of immigrants that threaten America. But Allegra Love, an immigration lawyer from Santa Fe, New Mexico providing legal assistance to the migrants, sees them as brave.

“Leaving your home country, with your children, on foot, into a whole another country that is hostile, toward’s another country where our president is actively creating stronger policies to prevent asylum seekers from being there, that is scary,” she said. “They are in God’s hands. That is how I like to put it.”

Some of the migrants took turns dancing while others watched.

When it was her turn, 16-year-old Sofia Lopez grabbed a pole, her long dark hair swirling around her shoulders.

She is a transgender migrant from Honduras, one of about two dozen LGBTQ migrants traveling together with the caravan. Once they reach Tijuana, they plan to ask for asylum in the United States as a group.

The LGBTQ migrants have been instructed not to share their personal stories with the media out of concern that doing so might jeopardize their asylum cases.

But Abeja, the caravan coordinator, said Latin American LGBTQ people face persecution in their home countries. “A lot of them have stories of injuries from being attacked in their countries” because of their sexual orientation or gender identification, he said.

 

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A church in Puebla, Mexico, has been converted into one of four shelters for several hundred migrants from Central America. Nick Oza/azcentral.com

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