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Drone footage shows from above some of the several thousand Central Americans, mostly Hondurans, that have been trekking in a caravan through southern Mexico with hopes of reaching the United States. (Nov. 2)
AP

SAYULA DE ALEMAN, MEXICO — The caravan of migrants — the group that has roiled the United States during election season more than 1,000 miles away — crossed into the Gulf Coast state of Veracruz at a roadway construction stop. 

Women and children ambled along. Fathers pushed toddlers in strollers. Young men, meanwhile, sat atop tanker trunks transiting the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, clung to the sides of semitrucks and claimed coveted spots on flatbed trailers and pickup beds. 

“Make space for women and children,” Claudia Coello, a grandmother traveling with two adult sons, two daughters-in-law and a grandchild, yelled at the young men pushing ahead of her to board an agricultural vehicle stuck waiting.

“The women and children walk, the men ride like they’re kings,” she commented sourly. “They don’t give us a chance.”

The caravan arrangement offers few comforts for the thousands of Central Americans trekking through Mexico with the goal of reaching the U.S. border, perhaps at Tijuana. 

Yet few seem deterred by fatigue, blisters, extreme heat during the day and torrential rains at night as they sleep in the open air.

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Despite days of walking, illness, and uncertainty, Honduran native Joel Eduardo Espinar is determined to continue the arduous trek with his wife and children as part of a migrant caravan winding its way through Mexico toward the U.S. border. (Nov 2)
AP

The Mexican government says about 2,900 migrants arriving in caravans have applied for asylum, while another 900 have asked to be repatriated. 

But thousands more are pushing toward the U.S. border, preferring to risk an uncertain welcome in the United States rather than stay in Mexico — where the government has offered them temporary work visas and social benefits — or returning home. There are also the threats coming from President Donald Trump, who has vowed the migrants will not cross the border and has sent troops to help stop them. 

READ MORE: Tracking Trump’s threats, claims on immigration

Many of the migrants marching northward take Trump’s threats in stride, appearing unfazed by the tough talk. Many invoke God when mentioning the president, positing that a high power will intervene.

“We don’t trust in Donald Trump. We trust in God,” Coello said, adding she wasn’t considering abandoning the caravan or heading back to Honduras.

“My sons have graduated from university and there’s no work for them there,” she said. “The gangs want them to work (in crime) and if they don’t, they’ll be killed.”

Would migrants be shot?

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President Donald Trump says he told the U.S. military mobilizing at the Southwest border that if migrants try to throw rocks at them, the troops should act as though the rocks are “firearms.” (Nov. 1)
AP

A few of the caravan participants showed preoccupation with the president’s comments, however — especially those involving soldiers engaging with migrants.

“Donald Trump said that if the caravan throws rocks, they’ll shoot,” said Jorge Ulloa, 21, a vendor fleeing extortion and gang threats in Honduras. “There are a lot of young, impulsive people in the caravan.”

The president on Thursday suggested migrants could be shot if they threw rocks or stones at members of the military, saying troops would “fight back” and explaining any stone will be considered a “firearm because there’s not much difference.”

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President Donald Trump says if migrants throw rocks at US troops they’re not going to be shot, but they’re “going to be arrested.” He previously had said the US military should react to rock-throwing migrants as though the rocks were “rifles.” (Nov. 2)
AP

On Friday, Trump disputed how Thursday’s comments had been interpreted and told reporters he hoped “they won’t have to fire.” 

The role of the military deployment remains in some dispute, with some deriding it as a political stunt. Federal and military officials have said the troops will be used to support border security. 

Whatever the military’s role, border authorities have often shot people who throw rocks at the border, in shootings that the Border Patrol generally has said were justified in the past. The agency changed policy in 2014 to direct agents to avoid situations in which they have no alternative to using deadly force against rock throwers.

Border Patrol Agent Lonnie Swartz in 2012 fired 16 shots across a border fence in Arizona, killing 16-year-old Jose Antonio Elena Rodriguez. A jury deadlocked on manslaughter charges for Swartz; his retrial is underway

More caravans on the way

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On Friday afternoon, a third caravan, which started in El Salvador, crossed the Suchiate River separating Mexico and Guatemala. 

The first of the caravans, which set out Oct. 12 from Honduras, rolled into the sweaty crossroads of Sayula de Aleman — some 330 miles southeast of Mexico City. From there, the caravan will run the gantlet of Tierra Blanca, a hyper-violent region notorious for crimes committed against migrants such as kidnapping, rape and extortion — carried out by drug cartels and crooked public officials alike.

Manuel Benitez, 36, a Honduras native, who said he fled threats at home, abandoned the trip on Thursday, saying his 12-year-old daughter couldn’t handle life on the road any longer. Benitez had tried traveling through Veracruz last year in an attempt to reach the U.S. border. But he says he turned himself in and asked to be repatriated after a criminal gang climbed aboard the train he was riding on, forced off a group of migrants and robbed them.

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The risks of the road for migrants through Mexico are well-known in Central America. But “by going in a caravan, we’re not scared,” Ulloa said. 

Immigration observers in Central America say caravans have become popular for security reasons as migrants bet on strength in numbers. As the caravans wind their way through Mexico, media outlets provide coverage and organizations such as the U.N. High Commission for Refugees and state human-rights commission monitor the migrants’ progress — dissuading police from launching mass action against them, they say.

Caravans also allow migrants to forgo paying the cost of “coyotes,” smugglers whose rates soared as the U.S. border became tougher to cross and Mexico stepped up its own immigration enforcement.

Rick Jones, youth and migration adviser at Catholic Relief Services in El Salvador, says coyotes there charge “between $8,000 and $13,000” for the trip.

READ MORE: Migrant caravan persists on foot in Mexico

The first of the caravans set out from San Pedro Sula, Honduras, on Oct. 12 and mushroomed as it moved north. 

It pushed past police blockades and closed borders and has depended largely on the generosity of ordinary Mexicans. As the caravan transited the Isthmus of Tehuantepec — the narrowest point between Mexico’s Gulf and Pacific Coasts at just 137 miles — villagers passed out bags of water and tossed oranges to people riding atop vehicles. 

In the way station of Jesús Carranza halfway across the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, where ranches and cornfields give way to banana groves, Moises Muñoz, 61, gave away water, plastic cups of Coca-Cola and sandwiches — for women and children — from his roadside taco stand.

“We don’t have much, but we’re sharing what we can,” he said. “It’s not right to turn our backs on these people.”

The caravan had a change of route earlier in the week as coordinators had hoped buses would be provided to take many of the migrants to Mexico City. A plan to travel the twisty, narrow road through the rugged Sierra Madre to Oaxaca city was also scrapped as it was deemed too dangerous.

Instead, the caravan headed across the Isthmus of Tehuantepec. At its first stop in the railway town of Matías Romero on Thursday night — where a caravan in April stalled after Trump started tweeting his disapproval of its progress — migrants were left soaked and seeking shelter as heavy rains poured.

Some of the migrants holed up in an abandoned hotel after a nearby sports field where they were sleeping flooded. Many more crashed under awnings along the highway, though sleep was at a premium as trucks rumbled by in the night. At the covered basketball courts in the town center, a group of youths played reggae music, smoked and socialized in the middle of sleeping families — sparking a confrontation at 1:15 a.m.

“There’s always someone making noise,” snapped a gruff man who confronted the noisy group. He lit a cigarette and sipped a courtesy cup of coffee, unable to get back to sleep.

Republic reporter Rob O’Dell contributed to this article.

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