TAPACHULA, Mexico—After walking around 20 miles under the burning sun, Irineo Mujica and Luis Villagran, the two main organizers, gathered the full caravan around them to deliver the news. Mexican immigration authorities were offering a way to let them walk freely around the country: They will give out official immigration cards—but only to women and children.
Marissa Flores and her husband Emanuel looked at each other in doubt and with fear; they had walked over 300 miles from El Salvador to where they were standing. Both, along with their two kids, a 3-year-old boy and a 1-year-old girl, left home three months ago after Emanuel was threatened by “La 18” members, one of the most violent gangs in El Salvador.
“We decided that we couldn’t be apart, we shouldn’t, and that’s why we came together, as a family,” Marissa told The Daily Beast.
But the government’s offer was again threatening to pull them apart. If they took the offer, Marissa and the kids would have a better chance to make it to the U.S., but that meant Emanuel would have to be sent back to El Salvador to face the threat put out by the gang.
“We cannot be selfish,” Mujica yelled over a megaphone. “If we don’t protect our women, especially those pregnant, what’s the whole point of the caravan?”
Mujica and Villagran disagreed for a few minutes. Villagran thought that this would be their last chance to keep moving north, while Mujica thought it was a trap to dismantle the caravan. To get to an agreement they decided to let the migrants vote.
Marissa and Emanuel both raised their hands to vote for “no”.
“We can’t separate. This is the whole point, to save his life and to be together as a family,” said Marissa.
While the U.S. government is in talks to compensate families separated at the border under Trump, migrant families are still being separated, only this time by Mexican hands.
Mexico approved a new immigration law this year that prohibits children under 18 from being jailed in immigration detention centers—as was happening before—and instead requires authorities to take them to an official shelter for minors, from where they’re still usually deported.
Additionally, in an agreement with the U.S. after a series of bilateral discussions earlier this year, Mexican authorities have committed to deploying about 10,000 troops over the southern border “to make it more difficult to make the journey, and make crossing the borders more difficult,” as White House press secretary Jen Psaki put it in an April press conference.
On the ground, Mexican authorities are making informal offers to women and children in caravans like this one.
Rita Robles, a migrant Human Rights activist in Chiapas, said that “the policies for detention and deportation by Mexican authorities” under pressure from the U.S. are a new way to separate migrant families.
“When a migrant family is detained by Mexican authorities, adults are taken into immigration detention centers and the children are taken to DIF [Mexico’s system of shelters for kids],” she said.
Marissa and Emanuel said they left their home in San Salvador after gang members tried to extort Emanuel for around $50 a week.
“They told me it was the new price for safety in the neighborhood, to take care of my family, our car and our house,” Emanuel said.
But after missing the first payment, he said, two armed men entered his home and told him he had to gather $500 by the end of the day or he would be killed.
"We left that same afternoon without anything on our hands but a couple of backpacks with clothes and our children,” Emanuel said.
The majority of the caravan voted “no” to separating, so the organizers had to go back to the Mexican authorities with the answer: they will keep walking together, “as a big family," as Mujica said.
“This is a family caravan, this is the caravan of the kids and the family,” he said.
After voting, the caravan stopped to rest for the remainder of the day before departing to Ulapa. For the first time during the journey, they traveled by night, avoiding the sun.
“The authorities say they are following us to protect us, but the reality is they are waiting for our children or our women to get tired or to dehydrate and take us back to Tapachula,” said Nelson, a 34-year-old migrant from Honduras traveling with his wife and a 4-year-old boy.
Nelson might be right. During the first four days of walking, around 20 migrants have been taken back to Tapachula by Mexican authorities for medical conditions, according to the Mexican Immigration Institute, a government agency.
Nelson, who has been in two caravans this year, told The Daily Beast that unlike the past caravan, this time authorities were not allowing migrants to jump into vehicles to move faster. (The first caravan, in late August, was violently blocked by Mexican immigration authorities before leaving Tapachula. During the clash, a man was brutally kicked in the head by a Mexican immigration employee.)
“That’s what they [Mexican authorities] are looking for, to wear us up and have us voluntarily jump into their buses,” he said.
According to organizers’ figures, the caravan has around 65 pregnant women, 40 babies under a year old, and around 400 people under 18.
Although she had to receive medical attention on the second day of walking because of the blisters on her feet, Marissa is hopeful they will make it all the way to the U.S.
“Little by little, but we’ll get there. People on the caravan are very supportive, if someone is hurt, we help and we all wait. This is why we voted to stay together,” she said.
But the caravan still has more than 1,200 miles to go to the U.S.
“If they didn’t break us down today, they will not break us down until we get to the American dream,” said Nelson.