Cartoon by Marian Kamensky

'If our countries were safe, we wouldn't leave': the harsh reality of Mexico's migrant caravan 

As Donald Trump decries an ‘invasion’ and sends troops to the border, David Agren speaks to Central Americans fleeing poverty and violence

The Guardian: A Central American man taking part in the ‘Migrant Via Crucis’ caravan, which travels the length of Mexico to the US and often raises awareness of the plight of migrants. Photograph: Victoria Razo/AFP/Getty Images

Swaying on a swing in a park teeming with Central American migrants in southern Mexico, Henry Juárez hardly looks like an invader ready to rush the US border – and certainly not an enemy the national guard forces being sent to the southern frontier by Donald Trump would have trouble stopping.

A slight 16-year-old with copper streaks in his hair wearing a singlet, sandals and baggy pants, he hit the perilous road through Mexico last month after seven gangbangers burst into his home in El Salvador, put a pistol in his face and threatened to kill him and his family if he didn’t make an extortion payment of $100 (£71).

“I was going to stay in my own country. I had a good job,” said Juárez, who had worked for a company installing utility poles. “But they were asking me for money that I didn’t have.”

Juárez was among the more than 1,000 Central Americans trying to reach the United States in the annual “Stations of the Cross Caravan”. The caravan travels the length of Mexico and often raises awareness of the plight of migrants, who flee poverty and violence in some of the most murderous countries in the world and are robbed, kidnapped and raped on their perilous paths through the country.

But the caravan become controversial this year after conservative media in the US called it an “invasion”. Trump deemed it a threat to American national security and announced plans to send the national guard to protect the US border.

This year’s caravan stalled after a spate of Trump tweets in the dilapidated railway town of Matías Romero on the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, some 650km southeast of Mexico City and thousands of kilometres more from its final destination of Tijuana, while organizers and Mexican immigration officials started talking.

Many of the migrants arrived penniless in a public park. They walked, hitchhiked, stole rides atop freight trains and climbed aboard empty lories after setting out from the Guatemala border in search of safety or a better lot in life.

Juárez didn’t eat for days and wore out a pair of sneakers on the 425km trek through southern Mexico. He started peddling single cigarettes – five packs a day, he boasts – to finance his trip.

He had heard of Trump’s tweets, but didn’t seem impressed, quipping: “This cabrón [bastard] says he’s going to kill all the migrants with nuclear weapons. He’s loco.”

Trump originally demanded Mexico stop the caravan, while decrying lax immigration enforcement south of the border, even though Mexico annually detains and deports tens of thousands of Central Americans.

On Thursday, he claimed victory, tweeting: “The caravan is largely broken up thanks to the strong immigration laws of Mexico and their willingness to use them so as not to cause a giant scene at our Border.” He added: “Because of the Trump Administrations actions, Border crossings are at a still UNACCEPTABLE 46 year low. Stop drugs!”

As with many of Trump’s tweets, the facts remain uncertain.

Some observers suspect the president’s tweets were timed to have an impact on his administration’s negotiations with Mexico and Canada over the North American Free Trade Agreement (Nafta) – especially as Mexico seems anxious to do a deal prior to its 1 July presidential election >>>