‘It’s an Exodus’

CIUDAD HIDALGO, Mexico — The long line of men and women waded into the muddy waters of the Suchiate River. Holding onto a rope, they pulled themselves over the invisible line dividing Guatemala and Mexico. Others crossed with their babies and young children on crowded rafts built with tires.

I watched this flood of humanity on Oct. 20, and by the time the sun set, thousands had made it over the border to continue the march northward. Even more crossed in the following days, reinforcing the caravan of the desperate and determined that is shaking governments from Honduras to Washington.

Donald Trump has used the caravan — a group of thousands of Central Americans who’ve joined together to make their way toward Mexico and the United States and escape violence and desperate poverty — as a political tool. “I think the Democrats had something to do with it,” he said Monday, calling it “an assault on our country” that includes “some very bad people.”

He’s claimed “Middle Easterners” are in the group, while admitting there is no proof of this. Jim Mattis, the defense secretary, announced Thursday that he would send at least 800 troops to the southern border to block the migrants, which would prevent them from seeking asylum.

The migrant caravan is more than fodder for misleading claims and overreactions, and more than a tool to stoke voters’ fears just before midterm elections. It’s a blaring reminder that Latin America is suffering a prolonged refugee crisis that demands solutions.

The vast majority are from Honduras, although some Salvadorans, Nicaraguans and Guatemalans have joined them. Since the caravan first formed in the Honduran city of San Pedro Sula on Oct. 13, it has grown from hundreds to thousands. Its scale reflects how much Hondurans are suffering from incessant violence, political turmoil and brutal poverty.

“This is not a normal action,” declared a migrant activist, Rubén Figueroa, in the Mexican city of Tapachula. “It’s an exodus.”

The way so many have banded together — using strength in numbers as a way to defend themselves from criminals, who could kidnap them, and policemen, who could detain and deport them — is remarkable. But Mexico is the site of only one of the several swelling corridors of people fleeing their homes. Costa Rica is handling thousands running from Nicaragua, where hundreds have been killed in a government crackdown on protests. Colombia, Brazil and Peru are all dealing with a huge influx of Venezuelans.

There are three distinct phenomena forcing people to move. The first is criminal violence, with murder rates at catastrophic levels, and gangs committing extortion and kidnapping. The second is a return to authoritarianism, accompanied by the use of deadly violence by security forces against those protesting autocratic rulers. The third is economic failure that has pushed people into extreme poverty. Some countries are facing all three of these at the same time.

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Joan Grillo