Central American migrants taking part in caravans that cross Mexico’s territory are often presented as pawns manipulated by NGOs or smuggling gangs. In fact, they’re making an active choice to challenge a violent border system that extends far beyond US soil.

Members of the Central American migrant caravan wait along the roadside in Donaji, Mexico, as they move to the next town. (Spencer Platt / Getty Images)

Over Christmas, images of thousands of women, men, and children walking behind a banner and a man carrying a white cross appeared on the front pages of media outlets worldwide. They were Venezuelans, Hondurans, Guatemalans, Cubans, Haitians, and others who together formed the “exodus from poverty” (Exodo de la Pobreza), as the banner reads.

Many of them looked tired after walking dozens of miles through southern Mexico. Many carried their children, belongings, and even their pets toward the North.

Mexican authorities disbanded the caravan by offering regularization and transport buses just after New Year’s Eve. About ten days later, the caravaneros reassembled in Oaxaca to make their way northward.

This was by no means the first border caravan to progress through Mexican territory. A month earlier, another caravan, also several thousand participants strong, had marched through the south of Mexico. In April 2023, three thousand migrants gathered in Tapachula, united in a northward march to protest the country’s detention system.

The urgency of their cause was underscored just weeks prior when a fire killed forty detained migrants in Ciudad Juárez, within sight of El Paso, demonstrating the lethality of the existing border-control system. The people who take part in the border caravans are mounting a challenge to that system by voting with their feet.

Challenging the Border Regime

When the largest caravan to date approached the US border during the 2018 midterms, Donald Trump sent the military to the border. Trump spoke of a foreign invasion and promised to crush the caravans.

Joe Biden’s rhetoric as president has been less harsh. However, despite Republican claims that his administration has somehow pulled US border security to pieces, Biden has quietly continued and intensified the violent, senseless border and migration strategies of his predecessor.

Joe Biden has quietly continued and intensified the violent, senseless border and migration strategies of his predecessor.

Nevertheless, “irregular” migration has increased, and caravans full of people fleeing dispossession become increasingly frequent. It is almost as if the globalized US border regime and the imperialism it backs are not preventing but rather precipitating the caravans.

Decades of dispossession and destabilization in Latin America have shrunk the space people see for their future. Yet, when they gather to take on one of the world’s most tightly knit border regimes, they find collective agency precisely where hope seems least probable.

False Images

Too often, analyses of these caravans, be they in Mexico, Belarus, or Turkey, take one of two positions. The Right paints them as “invading hordes” directed by NGOs, activists, or other enemies of the state. Liberals, on the other hand, tend to see them as pawns manipulated by politicians and deceived by smugglers.

Migrants themselves rarely appear in these analyses as anything other than passive witnesses of the horrors of irregular migration. While there is much truth in the descriptions of violence, exploitation, and abuse along the US’s vertical border, a crucial part of the story is missing: self-organization by migrants to overcome this violence. This makes it all too easy to shift the blame to anyone and anything but the imperialist border regime that produces it.

Caravans are an active response to border externalization — the extension of border regimes into the territory of third countries.

Caravans are an active response to border externalization — the extension of border regimes into the territory of third countries. This strategy makes migration increasingly dangerous and produces the precarity that makes migrants particularly exploitable once they arrive at their (often temporary) destination. It is an integral part of what migrant activist and author Harsha Walia calls “border imperialism.”

US foreign policy is to blame for much of the violence and poverty that robs people in Latin America of their right to stay in their home regions. This impact manifests itself in the form of direct or indirect interventions and dispossession through unequal trade and waves of ruthless privatization backed by US-supported local autocrats.

For a few decades now, the United States has attempted to remove the result of its politics — displaced people — from its immediate territorial boundary. This becomes evident through repeated statements from the US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) that declare the Southwestern border to be the “last line of defense, not the first.”

Borders Without Borders

Through a series of deals, the US border has in effect been extended deep into Mexican and even Guatemalan territory. The highly militarized, internationally active Border Patrol Tactical Unit (BORTAC) that “defends” the United States against transit migrants in Mexico and black lives matter protesters in Portland is just the most obvious example of this stretching.

Although such practices began earlier, the 2014 Southern Border Program (Programa Frontera Sur) introduced by the Mexican government under US pressure marks the beginning of its most intense period so far. This program declared migration to be a top priority of Mexican national security. It turned militarized and securitized approaches into the country’s main instruments to fend off Central American transit migrants and satisfy Mexico’s Northern neighbor.

One year later, Mexican authorities had already apprehended more Central Americans within their territory than the CBP did at the US Southwestern border. The process of externalization thus shifted the impact of the US border several thousand miles southward.

Through a series of deals, the US border has in effect been extended deep into Mexican and even Guatemalan territory.

However, when we combine the numbers published by US and Mexican authorities, it reveals no significant change in apprehensions. Instead, the shift in border enforcement has restructured the transit space within Mexico.

Because migration is treated as a security issue, migrants have to become invisible. Aggressive border practices, which often include abuse and extortion by authorities, force migrants to move where they cannot be detected. The further they move away from public space, the more dangerous their journey becomes. Many migrants now refer to the journey across Mexican territory as “The Corridor of Death” (El corredor de la Muerte).

Crushed Hopes

In late 2018, the biggest migrant caravan yet pulled thousands of migrants out of this invisibility. During the same period, left-wing candidate Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) won the Mexican presidential election in a landslide. There was a short glimpse of hope that the Corridor of Death might be abolished, as AMLO likened the Central American transit migrants to Mexican migrants in the United States and announced a far-reaching shift in Mexican migration policy.

Instead of securitizing the issue, he declared that his administration would approach migration from the standpoint of human rights and development. Migrants received transit documents and humanitarian assistance, and AMLO’s government lobbied the United States for a development initiative that would include not only the Mexican South but also Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras.

Aggressive border practices, which often include abuse and extortion by authorities, force migrants to move where they cannot be detected.

Unfortunately, these hopes of a new approach to migration and development in the region were quickly crushed. Trump infamously threatened to increase tariffs on all Mexican products on a monthly basis if Mexico refused to clamp down on migrant transit routes. For a country that has been highly dependent on regional trade since the introduction of NAFTA, it was easier to comply with Trump’s demands than to risk an open trade war.

US pressure did not merely restore the status quo ante but intensified it, with the newly created National Guard, a highly militarized police force, now focusing on the management of migration. Since then, there have been mass detentions and arbitrary internal deportations. Leon, a migrant activist, says that violence against migrants and activists has reached a new level:

They act with complete impunity. It is a violation of all rights a person has. They steal and destroy our papers, and the National Guard persecutes, beats up, and kidnaps activists and migrants. Before, you could at least exercise some of your rights.

Tapachula, a major transit site close to the Guatemalan border, has become such an intense focus of the National Guard that migrants started calling it “Prison City” (Ciudad Carcel). In spite of this pressure, “irregular migration” continues to the extent that commentators in the United States speak of “record levels” and conjure the specter of another “border crisis.”

The only thing that seems to have changed is that migration is now even more risky, and the trafficking business has become a major income source for Mexican cartels. If nobody is able to leave Tapachula through their own efforts, let alone reach the US border, they have to rely on the services of smugglers with their highly professional infrastructure.

On the March

It is this background that produces caravans. Migrants can only break out of invisibility, precarity, exposure to violence, and dependence on organized crime if they act collectively. It is not “false promises” or “manipulation” by smugglers that motivate people to join caravans. They do so because it is the safest and most accessible way for them to cross Mexico and overcome the vertical border that the United States installed within its territory.

Migrants can only break out of invisibility, precarity, exposure to violence, and dependence on organized crime if they act collectively.

In his study of the caravan of late 2018, Eduardo Torre Cantalapiedra concludes that most of the people who joined it were “involuntary nonmigrants” before the caravan picked them up. These are people who either got stuck in transit or were never able to leave in the first place. Most of them form part of what Mike Davis called the “outcast proletariat,” a class of people who never even had the chance to be exploited for profit by capital.

Many have been displaced and dispossessed through several rounds of land reforms and privatization. They suffer from chronic underemployment due to the premature deindustrialization that many Latin American economies have gone through in recent decades.

The caravan gives them the opportunity to change these circumstances without having to rely on organized crime. This is also why the caravans tend to have a more heterogenous makeup than other forms of irregular migration. As Carla, an NGO worker in Tapachula tells me: “In every caravan we see more women, more children, more families, people in wheelchairs, people with suitcases, with dogs, and people of the LGBTQ community.”

Misery and Joy

Joining and keeping up with a caravan is hard. Often, the National Guard tries to break up the crowd violently, while organized crime tries to subvert them.

Even in the absence of such threats, the journey itself is exhausting and draining. People cross many hundreds or even thousands of miles by foot or on the back of La Bestia, the infamous freight train that many migrants use to travel northward. Upon reaching Mexico City, it is common for them to have blisters on their feet or wounds that have not been properly attended to.

A movement that starts with the most fundamental political demand, the right to a better life, becomes increasingly self-aware as it crosses the vertical border regime.

Nevertheless, participants often describe the caravan as an exciting experience. It forms as a disorganized crowd and slowly develops into a cohesive collective. Sharing the misery and joy of transit, confronting and negotiating with authorities, and planning the next steps in democratic assemblies is a uniquely politicizing experience for many.

A movement that starts with the most fundamental political demand, the right to a better life, becomes increasingly self-aware as it crosses the vertical border regime. As they face that regime together, participants develop their own critiques of dispossession and border imperialism. As Leon puts it:

You learn a lot along the way. A migrant is very different when the caravan picks them up in Tapachula than when the caravan drops them in Tijuana. After they walk together all the way and see the struggle, they become a completely different person. Suddenly, they demand the right to asylum, free movement, and the right to walk in peace.

On January 21, another caravan formed in San Pedro Sula, Honduras. It is the first one that has been formed within Honduras in a while, but it will certainly not be the last.

US secretary of state Antony Blinken speaks of great progress in Washington’s cooperation with Mexico in the “shared goal” of cracking down on what he calls an “unprecedented surge of migration.” The present and future caravaneros, however, already know that such cooperation is not going to provide them with the possibility to stay nor with the right to move. To challenge border imperialism, they have to move collectively. The caravans will not end until we undo the regime that produces the Corridor of Death in the first place.

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