This story was updated throughout at 2:30 a.m. EDT, October 26, 2018
MEXICO CITY — The message was clear. Mexico would make sure the human column of thousands of migrants have safe passage throughout their journey to the northern border, even as President Donald says undocumented immigration is "like a war," gets ready to send regular army troops to the border, and threatens to close it to asylum seekers altogether.
On Thursday evening, Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, in an exchange on Fox News heightening the sense of drama and danger as crucial midterm elections approach in the United States, said, “We do not have any intention right now to shoot at people, but they will be apprehended,” adding awkwardly that Border Patrol officers “do have the ability of force to defend themselves.” Fox was pushing the idea that the migrants might be firing on the Border Patrol or the National Guard or, soon, the U.S. Army.
All of this may give some pause to the poor and often desperate people hiking north, but Mexico's politicians are used to the histrionics of Trump and rally-rousing claims he'll turn the southern border into some kind of iron curtain financed by the Mexicans themselves. As Ex-President Vicente Fox put it after Trump was elected, “I’m not going to pay for that fucking wall." There was no chance of that in any case, and the prospect now would be less than none. And the Mexican government is not going to stop this migrant march either.
So, Donald Trump is not wrong if he thinks that the way Mexico is handling the situation may be an act of defiance. Mexican politicians have core supporters, too, and they voted massively in July for Andrés Manuel López Obrador, known as AMLO, who often was compared to Trump during the campaign because he’s a populist and, yes, very much a "nationalist." But for precisely that reason he and his supporters and, it’s fair to say, those who want to keep their jobs after he takes over as president on December 1, are not about to bow in the face of Trump's bluster. As AMLO likes to put it, “Mexico will not be the piñata of any foreign government.”
Meanwhile, the march continues.
The first members of the “caravan” of migrants stepped onto Mexican soil Monday, marching through 87-degree heat and intense humidity, marking the 12th day since the journey began in Honduras.
On their way to Tapachula, the first big city on their route, they were met by a phalanx of heavily armed Mexican Federal Police blocking the road.
As marchers persevered, tensions grew. The phalanx of riot policemen drew back a few feet. Then in a surprise twist, Mexican Federal Police Commissioner Manelich Castilla took picked up a microphone and told the advancing marchers, “We want you to know that we want to make sure your passage though Mexico will be safe, controlled, orderly.”
The phalanx of cops withdrew to the side of the road and let the caravan through.
Castilla added, “The trip will be difficult and dangerous. We want you to be safe.”
Reaching the town of Huixtla, the marchers were greeted by the mayor, Jose Luis Laparra Calderón (an AMLO supporter), and hundreds of locals who cheered them on. “This is a city that has joined with them,” the mayor told a local broadcaster.
Again, the message was clear. If the Federal Police let them through at the southern border, they would let them through at the northern border. The caravan, which has mushroomed in size as more and more migrants joined along the journey, faces a long march that could take up to 16 days. All the marchers needed was Mexico’s all-out support. And they got it from the top.
By Wednesday night, the head of the caravan had reached the town of Mapastepec, still deep in the southern province of Chiapas, inching its way on the western coastal highway that would lead to a fork in the road. Continue to Mexico City going east, through Oaxaca and Puebla. Maybe. They weren’t sure. Or stay west, heading toward Tijuana, a longer trek.
An organizer for Pueblo Sin Fronteras (People Without Borders), an activist that’s taken a growing role in an exodus that started almost by accident, says that the roads toward Tijuana are safer. The route northeast toward Reynosa, across from McAllen, Texas, is shorter but more treacherous. The people in the caravan will decide once they reach Mexico City, where they will hold a large rally. The organizer said it could take anywhere from three days to a week to reach Mexico’s capital.
There have been numerous previous caravans of migrants seeking safety and livelihood in the U.S. But none on the scale of the human sea of desperate women, children, men, families and individuals now facing the last and hardest leg of their journey.
One of the Pueblo Sin Fronteras organizers, Viridiana Vidal, told The Daily Beast unofficially that by Wednesday night the caravan had grown to 10,000 and “some were still coming across the bridge from Guatemala to Mexico.” The ragged procession stretched for miles. Those at the front were the ones gaining speed and would be the first to reach Mexico City, days ahead of the tail-end of the caravan.
Even now that Trump has ordered the military to buttress the Border Patrol agents and National Guard troops that already are poised to deter the caravan, most of the people marching are determined to move ahead.
Trump's thinking about the midterms. They are thinking about the rest of their lives. Trump calls this an “onslaught.” They call it hope.