Migrant caravans in Central America: Itinerant social movements to challenge the migration system

Written by Alejandra Mateo.

Antonio Ramos (not his real name) left his country, Honduras, in 2012, when he was 21 years old, in a 200 people strong migrant caravan that started in Tegucigalpa to reach Houston, USA. He had heard some time ago that a big group of people from that city in Colonia de Villanueva would depart to the North in the search of better life opportunities. At that moment, he was living with his grandmother as his mother had died 3 years ago and his father couldn’t take care of him as he was a drug addict. His dream was to escape from this unstructured background and find a brighter future. His brother lived in Houston and used to send money to his family for many years, so he was supposed to welcome him upon his arrival. However, luck was not on his side and after all the challenges he had to face to arrive in North America, all his dreams quickly vanished once he was deported by the USA migration police as soon as he arrived in the country. Unfortunately, he’s still not allowed to return to the USA. 

According to the Migration Policy Institute, migration from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras has been the main contributor to the population growth from Central America to the United States since 1980. In 2022, 705.500  people crossed the Mexican border to the USA and between October 2019 and March 2023 citizens from these countries represented almost a third of the 5.8 million arrivals from the southern border. The USA is the main country of destination for Central American migrants except the ones from Nicaragua, whose main destination is Costa Rica. Antonio’s niece also departed from Honduras to the United States after crossing Mexico some time ago, however she was much luckier than her uncle as she managed to enter the country safely. She left her small town when she was pregnant at 16 years old to help her family but also because of the fear she experienced after being threatened by a local mafia that wanted to force her to prostitute herself and to take part in drug dealing. Her mother still receives threats from gang members because they know her daughter ran away from the city

This exhausting trip involves crossing the deadly Mexican border, as well as walking through big mountains, rivers and other risky geographical locations.

Thousands of journeys by foot take place every year from Central American cities and towns – San Pedro Sula in Honduras is a very common place of departure-, to the USA. This exhausting trip involves crossing the deadly Mexican border, as well as walking through big mountains, rivers and other risky geographical locations. This is why migrant routes from Central America are highly dangerous and unsafe trips, not just because entire families have to cross lengthy distances by foot and without the right resources but also due to the extreme violence that they often experience during the routes: Because of the general bureaucratic and legal impediments to access legal documents that are required to legally enter the country, many families need to cross the border irregularly, which forces them to find alternative routes to reach the United States without being seen by american authorities. These clandestine routes are often the most dangerous and hard to cross. Due to the existence of multiple dangers linked to irregular migration from Central America to the United States, migrants started to organize collectively new – and safer- ways of leaving their home countries that would mitigate some of the current negative effects of illegal exodus: One of this new forms of traveling from one country to another are migrant caravans, which are also called migrant viacrucis. These caravans are formed by massive groups of population who walk together in a self-organized and self-managed way not only in order to be visible in a world where refugees are usually ignored by the governments and underprotected by authorities but also to help each other on a base of common solidarity.

As stated by doctor Heather M. Wurtz*, a migrant caravan is a “collective migrant journey and social movement that arose in the early 2000’s in direct response to the transnational policies of migration control and refugee management in the US and Mexico”. This refugee management consisted in constant violations of human rights and the use of extreme violence on the borders. This type of exodus can be understood not only as a massive movement of people from Central America to the North but also a true form of solidarity and protest as this travels provides a – at least temporary – remedy to isolation and vulnerability of irregular migration: This terrestrial caravans, transform the individual traumas caused by their constant criminalization, the violence that’s carried out by the authorities and all the atrocities migrants usually suffer from, into collective and shared struggle, which disputes a general notion of mutual strengthen. 

“In this journey people suffered from the strong violence of the Mexican government, who used disproportionate force against all the people who were joining the caravan

Even though migrant caravans have existed since the beginning of the XXI century in Latin America, they started to become particularly popular since the 13th of october 2018: That date became a symbol of the migrant caravans, as approximately  7000 people left together from the small city of San Pedro Sula in Honduras, in direction of the border of the United States of America. The reason to do it in a migrant caravan was to collectively face all the challenges and current dangers that they would find during the journey to the north. In this journey people suffered from the strong violence of the Mexican government, who used disproportionate force against all the people who were joining the caravan, including women and children. However, despite the great insecurity of migrating, according to studies conducted by ACNUR, 70% of people who join caravans think they would be in danger in case they returned to their countries of origin*.

Over the years, migrants caravans are being assisted by social entities in order to guarantee their safety during the journey and less exposure to physical and sexual abuse, a common form of violence that take place during these trips. Furthermore, collective caravans contribute to making visible the situation of millions of men, women and children who have to forcely leave their homes running away from poverty and lack of opportunities.  Even though these caravans are often carried out in groups of more than 1000 people, considering the nature of this type of journeys – just like in the regular illegal migration routes –  it is almost impossible to monitor and find truthful information about these journeys: how many people finally get to reach the USA, how many of them die on the way, what the demographics of travelers are… Usually the best way to get informed properly about the main aspects of each trip is to talk with members of the migrant caravans who might want to report their migrating experience. 

People who migrate in these caravans, such as in any other irregular way, experience multiple dangers that usually led them to death and many never get to finish their journeys: gang violence, police abuse, the dangers of wild animals such as snakes or wolves, dehydration, hunger, falls or heat exhaustion are some of the common consequences of traveling with low resources for a very long time. Antonio’s Mother, Suyapa (false name), claims that migrants, especially small children, usually suffer a lot during the journeys and only a few get to USA, “people die because the big mexican train known as the death train usually runs over them, others are bitten by animals, others drown in the rivers…”. 

“Women and LGTBIQ+ people are especially vulnerable to this violence as they often suffer from gender violence”

So, why do thousands of people leave their homes and risk their lives every year to reach North America? Mostly, the causes of the exodus are structural, which means that the problems come from the economic, social and cultural system itself. Some of the daily troubles that families from Central America have to face are the increasing violence conducted by local mafias, gangs and drug trafficking networks. Women and LGTBIQ+ people are especially vulnerable to this violence as they often suffer from gender violence ( both sexual, physical and psychological), prostitution, rape and persecution because of their sexual orientation. Also the presence of endemic poverty, kidnapping, murder, extortion are some of the reasons that make families leave their origin countries even when the journey can lead to death. However, in 2020, during the Covid pandemic, the huge impact of the Eta and Iota hurricanes in countries such as Honduras or Nicaragua caused a huge wave of climate migrant people who took long journeys to the north since their houses and living sources were destroyed. Many families took part in migrant caravans in order to travel. Even though Suyapa is fully aware that she could lose her life if she starts a journey to the North, she still seriously considers migrating in a caravan: “ I am now 40 years old, nobody gives me work at my age and the government does not give any help to the people. There is no source of income, no work and food prices have risen considerably over the last few years”. For most people in Central America, migrating is not a really free choice but the only way to survive.

Nowadays these caravans are still very popular among Central American citizens, which proves the great success of this form of organization. They have to be understood not only as huge groups of people traveling together in order to reach a better future for them and their families but also as a social movement itself: On one side, huge solidarity networks operate there in the aim of providing collective care and ensuring that resources are commonly shared by all the components of the group. Additionally, relevant decisions are also taken in common via assemblies and meetings. To face constant violence from the US authorities on the Mexican border, it is very usual for caravans to organize protests and demonstrations to show their unity and reaction to the border policies against migrants. Also, this form of migration is considered to increase the resilience and other positive psychological and somatic effects as it empowers migrant people and fights loneliness for individual suffering is transformed into shared experiences. As stated by M . Kurtz, “ the caravan movement provides a profound source of copying with the hardships of forced displacement and a potential conduit for overcoming the sequelae of collective trauma”.

* https://www.acnur.org/media/respuesta-regional-las-caravanas-de-refugiados-y-migrantes-en-centroamerica
* M. Kurtz, Heather, (2021), Mobilities. Author Manuscript