TAPACHULA, Mexico—When Bartolo Fuentes speaks about migrants, the usually soft-spoken former politician gets passionate, and an encyclopedic knowledge of immigration issues shines through. Bespectacled and 54 years old with salt and pepper hair, he has the look of a professor, but he draws on a lifetime working with migrants in Honduras, and on his own personal experience.
In 1980 an older brother migrated north, and by the end of the decade Bartolo sought refuge in Mexico himself after receiving threats. Central America’s right-wing death squads were notorious and his earlier participation in protests against the U.S.-backed Contras, who used his country as a staging ground in their CIA-backed war on Nicaragua’s Sandinistas, made him a potential target.
Until recently, Fuentes lived in relative anonymity despite being a former legislator and the host of a radio show on migration called “Without Borders.” But today, depending on who you ask, he is either a hero who’s put his own life on the line to help migrants, or a cynical villain. Many in the Honduran government—concerned with the country’s image amid a mass exodus—portray Fuentes as a “coyote,” or human trafficker, who organized the migrant caravan and took advantage of the people in it with “false promises” for political purposes.
ABOUT A MONTH AGO, when Fuentes first became aware of small groups dispersed throughout Honduras that were organizing among themselves to make the trek north, he decided to help out, just as he had done with a previous migrant caravan last April—and indeed throughout his life.
At the time, all the groups combined numbered no more than 200 people, Fuentes says. As someone who had helped repatriate the bodies of many migrants who died in the journey al Norte, he was acutely aware of the dangers and wanted to help ensure the people’s safety.
“No one expected this human avalanche,” he told The Daily Beast in a phone call from the Honduran capital, Tegucigalpa.
But then a report on the country’s most-watched cable news channel, HCH, painted a picture of the caravan that changed everything. The anchors interviewed a woman who was supposedly part of the caravan. The woman talked about safety in numbers, called Fuentes the organizer and mentioned foreign assistance. The anchors, without any supporting evidence, then said that Fuentes would pay for the migrants’ food and transportation.
Fuentes was later interviewed by the anchors and strongly refuted what was said, but by then the damage was done.
“When I saw the [HCH] news report, I said ‘This is my opportunity,’” said Gustavo Montoya, 57, a migrant in the caravan whose face was sunburned and eyes were sparkling as he arrived in the this town in southern Mexico. “It grabbed my attention that we could pass easily. It impressed a lot of people.”
“After that news program I started to get hundreds of calls, then it took on a life of its own,” said Fuentes. “In Honduras, the government wants to minimize why people are leaving—they know they are going to leave and they want to say they are doing so because of lies and the opposition, not the conditions that they created. This is in line with what the United States is saying—that there are false promises being made. And this pro-government news program played into that messaging, trying to say that there is financing when really people just need to get out.”
Soon afterward, Hondurans from across the country headed west to join the caravan, which swelled by the thousands. Many were propelled to join by the HCH report, but the majority were people who had been considering migration for a long time and now saw an opportunity to head north with added safety in numbers and without having to pay a coyote, which can cost as much as $7,000.
“We are in the middle of a crisis in Honduras,” said Fuentes’ wife Dunia Montoya, who shares her husband’s academic aura and is also a journalist and migration activist. “In Honduras 300 people leave daily. What frightens the world is the accumulation of a week or two of people that concentrated together, but in Honduras we have been living in a humanitarian crisis since long ago.”
SOME GOVERNMENT OFFICIALS in Honduras are calling for an increase in social welfare spending to combat the causes of migration. But existing programs are highly politicized and rife with corruption. President Juan Orlando Hernandez already has spent more than any of his predecessors—to little or no effect on the lives of the poor.
According to FOSDEH, a local think tank, about two-thirds of the population lives in poverty and the total number increased by roughly six percent in 2017; 80 percent of workers earn below the minimum wage of a few hundred dollars per month. On top of this, Honduras ranks among the most violent countries on the planet. Fewer than one in 10 crimes is ever solved.
And then there’s the drought. Honduras is one of the countries that has been most affected by climate change, particularly in the part of its territory that intersects with what’s known as the Central America Dry Corridor. In the past, farmers in this region could rely on two harvests annually, but now they are lucky to produce one. This year, a severe drought during the rainy season meant tens of thousands of families produced none.
Data from U.S. Customs and Border Patrol shows an increase in rural migration in the past year due to these issues, and so many migrants from that particular region have attempted to flee in the last week that Honduras closed its border there with Guatemala indefinitely.
WITH A MIDTERM ELECTION looming in the U.S., President Donald Trump threatened to cut aid to Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador and Mexico if they didn’t stop the caravan, prompting those governments to send security forces to their respective borders. Then, without evidence to support the claim, Trump said the caravan was organized by Democrats and one of their major donors, billionaire George Soros. At a campaign rally in Montana last Thursday he said, “It’s going to be an election of the caravan.” On Friday he said, “These are some bad people coming through. These aren’t babies, these aren’t little angels coming into our country.”
On Monday Trump floated the idea the caravan was rife with criminals and “Middle Easterners,” only to have Guatemala’s president claim, in a burst of pure sycophancy meant to back up Trump’s claims, that several members of the so-called Islamic State had been intercepted. No evidence was presented to substantiate that statement. New York Times fact checkers rubbished it in short order. And, as it happens, for more than a century “Middle Easterners” have been a significant part of the Honduran population. They’re called Turcos because they immigrated so long ago they came with Ottoman passports.
By Monday, in any case, most of the caravan, by then over 7,000 strong, successfully passed into Mexico. Trump announced via Twitter that since Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador were unable to halt the advance of the caravan, “We will now begin cutting off, or substantially reducing, the massive foreign aid routinely given to them.”
The lesson to government leaders in the region should be just what a capricious ally Trump can be.
Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernandez has a lot more to lose than $180 million in U.S. assistance if the United States withdraws its support from his government. The United States is a close ally and supported Hernandez during a disputed election earlier this year, which was fraught with irregularities that swung in his favor and prompted the head of the Organization of American States to call for new elections.
Washington chose instead to recognize Hernandez as the winner and certified that his government was making progress on human rights despite corruption scandals and abuses, including extrajudicial killings that have taken place on his watch. Over 30 people were killed in the unrest that followed the election and the crisis polarized the country further.
WITH EACH PASSING DAY, the news coverage is inspiring more and more people to flee Honduras. Another caravan, this with roughly 1,000 people according to reports, crossed into Guatemala on Sunday. Yareli Guillen, a 19-year-old housekeeper in San Pedro Sula with fair skin, dark hair, a cherubic face, and a voice younger than her years is about to migrate for the second time, after first leaving her rural hometown for the city. “I have work, but I also know there’s no opportunity here for me to grow and I need to help my family—there has been practically no harvest this year,” she said.
Although Guillen is employed, her salary is not enough to send help home to her family, who depend upon agriculture and live within the Dry Corridor. After seeing an announcement that another caravan was leaving, she and three friends made plans to join. “Traveling in a group is cheaper and it’s safer,” she said. “I see that people are stopped at the borders, that there are people coming back, but this is my opportunity. Everything is in God’s hands. If it doesn’t work, I’ll be right back to where I am now.”
As for Fuentes, he was arbitrarily detained in Guatemala while accompanying the caravan and deported back to Honduras, where he received a hero’s welcome from many, but continues to be the subject of attacks from a government that is increasingly panicky about instability. “I’m worried about my security,” Fuentes told The Daily Beast. “There’s an image of Honduras that the government wants to put forward for political reasons. But that’s just not reality.
“This is a battle,” he said, “between the government and the ones who want to fight—for the truth and for a better country that people can live in.”
Now it has become a battle with the government of Donald Trump as well.