Surviving the migrant caravan: Friends watch each other's backs and ride their luck as they make perilous journey to US
It’s a scene you’d never come across on an American road: A flatbed stacked with men, women and children, doing 50 miles an hour with no restraints to cling to. Men standing on a trailer hitch of a big rig or lying atop a wheel well. Four men running to grab the back of an 18-foot tractor-trailer…then hanging on for a 45-mile trip over neck-jarring roads.
“I don’t think nobody can make it walking because it’s a long way, but if we all get together and find a ride, we could make,” said Roberto Gonzales, wearing a Boston Red Sox cap in the southern Mexico city of Juchitan, about 300 miles north of the Guatemalan border. “But by walking all the way to the US, I don’t think so, it’s gonna be too hard and take us a long, long time.”
This scene plays out every day in the back stretches of southern Mexico as the caravan of 4,000 migrants make their way to the U.S. Dressed in tattered clothes, worn shoes and dirty pants, they look at times like a defeated army walking back from the front. But pumped with antibiotics for swollen glands and sinus infections, knees and ankles wrapped, bandages taped to their blistered feet, each morning they appear from under trees and side streets lined with cardboard to walk another day.
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“I think some people call their families to send money so they can get a bus,” said teenager Jorge Gomez, a former resident of Pensacola. “Sometimes when they don’t have money, they just have to walk, and sometimes a nice person will go by in a truck and (give) them a ride. That’s how everyone has kept united all the way.”
Gomez and his father, deported from their home in Canada, are in Matais Romera in the state of Oaxaca. They joined the caravan as it passed through Guatemala three weeks ago.
”We’re trying to reach to the USA, you have a better life there and not feeling harassed,” said Jorge.
Surviving in the caravan is a matter of skill and luck. Are you nearby when the water truck pulls up? When hot food arrives, are you around the corner or sleeping because you walked all night? Did you leave too early and miss the morning produce trucks?
The caravan is really made up of hundreds of small groups of friends who watch each other’s back. Some are extended family, neighborhood friends or strangers who met on this journey. Jorge and his father made a few friends but largely remain focused on their goal of getting Jorge away from the gangs threatened to hurt his family if he did not join.
“We do want to apply for asylum, and we want to leave because there’s too much violence in our country,” said his father Emilio. “There are little kids that have already been taken away from their families and have been showed how to do it bad things. There is less violence in the US.”
It was day 11 in Mexico. Leaving Juchitan, the road narrowed and climbed 1,000 feet into the jungle like highlands of Oaxaca. Trucks downshifted. As a mile long line of vehicles approached a speed bump, in Mexico called a ‘tope’, a hundred migrants stood on the shoulder of the highway, hoping to climb in the bed of pickups, the running boards or flatbeds of semi’s and the ladders of petrol trucks, anything with wheels could shave hours off their journey to Matias Romero.
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Despite President Trump’s threat to close the border, the group seems unfazed, believing the American people will show mercy, U.S. law affords them a right to plead their case or angels will protect them.
"I just want to have a better life,” says Isaac Arbizza, who lived in Houston for 10 years. “It doesn’t matter where it’s going to be, whether it be Mexico or Canada. I don’t know where. The only thing that I want us to have a great life, and secure life.”
On probation in the U.S. for felony human trafficking, Arbizza says he spent two years in federal prison. He claims he is going to try to enter legally, although it is highly unlikely he would get in given his criminal record.
“I got problems in the United States,” he said. I got probation and I don’t want to break my probation, and do what the law of the United States tells me.”