The Migrant Caravan: Made in USA

Susan Meiselas/Magnum Photos
Hondurans living at the Iglesia Embajadores de Jesus shelter in Tijuana while waiting for their US asylum applications to be processed, December 2018

The migrant caravan that left Honduras and headed north toward the US last October is the largest flight from drug trafficking in history. Though the phenomenon of Central American caravans isn’t new, never before have thousands of people decided to flee from criminal organizations in such numbers. It is, in a sense, the biggest anti-mafia march the world has ever seen.

The migrants departed from San Pedro Sula, the second-largest city in Honduras and its economic center, not far from the Guatemalan border. Roughly 160 people had arranged to meet at the city’s bus terminal on October 12, the date of Columbus’s arrival in the Americas. By the time they set out, their number had grown to a thousand. People choose to leave together to shield one another, to protect themselves from being robbed along the way of the little they have. The alternative is to rely on coyotes (human traffickers), who charge seven or eight thousand dollars, sometimes more, to take migrants to the US—sums that can take decades of work to save, and that many borrow from criminals to whom they are then indebted for life. To leave in such a large group, then, is a form of defense against crime.

San Pedro Sula may not be well known, but from 2011 to 2014 it was the most violent city in the world. (Caracas took the title in 2015.) The only thing to do there is escape. The crime syndicates, which have complete control over the region and the power of life and death over its people, have in recent years plunged Honduras into an unofficial state of war. In 2012 the country had the highest murder rate in the world: nationally 90 people per 100,000 inhabitants were killed, but in San Pedro Sula the rate was 169 per 100,000. So far the provisional data for 2018 show the national murder rate to be down to about 40 per 100,000. Despite the decline, the murder rate remains extremely high—the US rate, by comparison, is fewer than 5 per 100,000 inhabitants.1

Several seasons of the reality show L’isola dei famosi (“Celebrity Island,” the Italian version of Celebrity Survivor) were shot in Honduras, which in the Western imagination has long been a natural paradise of white sand beaches where fish and coconut palms are plentiful and mosquitoes are the biggest nuisance. But the reality is quite different. In its annual Global Competitiveness Report, the World Economic Forum compiles a ranking of the countries where organized crime has the greatest impact on society. In the report published at the end of 2017, Honduras ranked second, behind only El Salvador. In the 2018 report, El Salvador still ranked first, while Honduras dropped to…

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