Courtesy photo / Brooke Binkowski

From Central America to the United States Border, a Journey of Lies

A highly publicized caravan of people traveling from Central America in order to turn themselves in at the United States border to request asylum — one of many groups who have done so over the years — has been dogged from start to finish by false stories and threats spurred by that disinformation.

One large wave of people arrived in Tijuana, Mexico during the first week of November 2018, where asylum-seekers met fake news purveyors and the corrosive results of the false stories they have spread face to face.

As thousands of men, women, and children wait for their asylum claims to be processed, they are now facing harassment on the streets of Tijuana from people who claimed that the caravan was full of “invaders” and criminal elements and held a march to show its occupants that they were not welcome:

Demonstrators held signs reading “No illegals,” “No to the invasion” and “Mexico First.” Many wore the country’s red, white and green national soccer jersey and vigorously waved Mexican flags. The crowd often slipped into chants of “Ti-jua-na!” and “Me-xi-co!” They sang the national anthem several times.

The march is a foreboding sign for the migrants who have formed caravans to cross Mexico in hopes of reaching the United States. Many, but not all, of the migrants have come to Tijuana, which borders San Diego, to request asylum in the U.S. They come primarily from Honduras, though some are from other Central American countries. A number of the asylum-seekers say they can’t return home after receiving threats from street gangs such as MS-13 and the 18th Street gang, as well as threats from government figures in their countries.

The march was only a few hundred people in a city of more than a million; as it turned out, not even that many Tijuana residents were protesting. While some were locals, many of those participating in these rallies did not live in Tijuana (as was reported by nearly every outlet at the time) but across the international border in California:

I had a chance to speak with some locals about their supposed “fears” about “immigrant invasions” but it quickly became clear many of the protestors were not there to talk, nor was this a spontaneous community response. They were there to incite hatred and to instigate violence.

The most violent and aggressive anti-immigrant voices were Trump supporters from Chula Vista attempting to make a name for themselves. One woman with a Facebook page called “Paloma for Trump” identifies herself as an “American from Mexico.” She consistently made the nonsensical (but now well-known) claims about how the Democrats and Soros were the main financiers of the caravan.

Notably, during a press conference on that same day, several self-described Trump supporters, namely “Frontline America with Ben Bergquam” and “Amy Sutton,” attended with the intent to disrupt.

This demonstration and others like it, then, did not rise organically on the streets of Tijuana. Instead, it was the product of a stream of false stories that quickly spread ahead of the caravan’s arrival, culminating in an extraordinary statement from Tijuana’s historically unpopular mayor, Juan Manuel Gastélum:

Just a few days earlier, on Thursday, Tijuana Mayor Juan Manuel Gastélum had called into a television show and made his most jarring remark about the migrants yet: that “human rights are for the right humans.” He was later seen wearing a red hat embroidered with the phrase “Make Tijuana Great Again.”

Photographs like the one used with this Politico article added to the confusion, as well, as it shows not asylum seekers but pedestrian crossers waiting to enter the United States at the Otay Mesa port of entry, potentially skewing readers’ perspectives on who was crossing and why.

But while the caravan’s crossing was — if not smooth — untroubled by xenophobia within Mexico until it reached Tijuana, the disinformation machine was already churning out hysterical rumors and wild stories in the United States about who was funding it. For example, billionaire George Soros, the far right almost universally agreed without a shred of evidence, was surely behind this, in an untrue and antisemitic trope first weaponized by Russian president Vladimir Putin years before, and uncritically parroted by elected officials in 2018:

The Soros/caravan theory dates to late March, when an earlier wave of migrants was heading north, according to an extensive blog post on Medium by Jonathan Albright, director of the Digital Forensics Initiative at Columbia University’s Tow Center for Digital Journalism. One Twitter post, which had no factual foundation, stated, “Caravan of 1,500 Central American Migrant Families Crossing Mexico to Reach U.S. Border All organized by Soros groups to cause more division.”

The rumors circulated on closed Facebook groups and various right-wing websites, as well as on left-wing sites seeking to debunk them. They cropped up again in recent weeks when a new caravan started receiving attention among conservatives. President Trump warned without evidence that people from the Middle East were among the Central Americans. A Florida congressman, Matt Gaetz (R), posted a video on Twitter of someone supposedly handing cash to migrants to “storm the US border,” and he asked: “Soros?”

In truth, the caravan was not funded by anyone. It is not even a new occurrence.

These exoduses to the United States did not occur in a vacuum, nor are they intended as a threat or a show of force. They have been spurred by untenable chaos and violence in Central America, and they not long after a 2009 coup d’etat in Honduras — supported by the United States — upended the country:

This chain of events — a coup that the United States didn’t stop, a fraudulent election that it accepted — has now allowed corruption to mushroom. The judicial system hardly functions. Impunity reigns. At least 34 members of the opposition have disappeared or been killed, and more than 300 people have been killed by state security forces since the coup, according to the leading human rights organization Cofadeh. At least 13 journalists have been killed since Mr. Lobo took office, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.

The police in Tegucigalpa, the capital, are believed to have killed the son of Julieta Castellanos, the rector of the country’s biggest university, along with a friend of his, on Oct. 22, 2011. Top police officials quickly admitted their suspects were police officers, but failed to immediately detain them. When prominent figures came forward to charge that the police are riddled with death squads and drug traffickers, the most famous accuser was a former police commissioner, Alfredo Landaverde. He was assassinated on Dec. 7 [2012].

Earlier caravans, known as the Viacrucis (or the Way of the Cross) after the long walk made by Jesus Christ to his crucifixion, began almost a decade before United States President Donald Trump made them a hot-button issue:

El Salvador and Honduras started seeing hundreds of women murdered each year, with few investigated at all.

“If you look at records of people being detained and making it through at the border, that is when we see a serious exodus of Hondurans and entry to the U.S.,” she said. “There’s extortion, gangs, but also intrafamilial violence against women. People wanted to get their kids out by 2014.”

That year, 2014, is when the United States saw a sharp increase in unaccompanied minors from Central America arrive at the Texas border. The United States began holding these migrant children on military bases, and images and news stories of the situation grabbed the attention of the American public.

In fact, a documentary was released about this exodus and the reasons Central Americans flee their home countries in 2016. It was called, appropriately enough, Viacrucis Migrante.

In 2018, an October caravan swelled to an unprecedented size. Thousands of people joined the long walk from Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala to reach the United States border. At first it was a mystery, given the hostility with which the Trump administration was treating migration in general and the caravans in particular, but a study from Tijuana’s Colegio de la Frontera Norte (COLEF) says the reason is clear: Because of Trump himself. Each tweet he posted, every threat he made, raised more awareness of the caravan, inspiring more and more people to join as it wended its way north because of its increased coverage in the news media:

The coverage is undoubtedly due to the political use of the phenomenon by Donald Trump during the period prior to the midterm elections in the United States, held on November 6, 2018. Trump’s tweets, his statements and those of his government, were repeated in thousands of newspaper articles and the spread of news about the caravan not only in the Central American and Mexican region, but throughout the entire world.

People were informed in advance of the arrival of the caravan and were leaving to join it on its journey. According to the media, the caravan started on October 12, 2018 with 160 people in San Pedro Sula. The following day, there were already about 1,300 people, and on October 14, when they reached Ocotepeque, more than 2,000. According to the survey conducted by El Colef, almost half of the people (49 percent) joined the caravan in Honduras, 20.5 percent did so in Guatemala, 0.7 percent in El Salvador, 21.6 percent in Chiapas, 6.7 percent in another state of Mexico, and 1.7 percent in Baja California. [Translated. -bb]

And at least one popular account on Facebook, since deactivated by the social media site (which also refuses to divulge the identity of those behind the account), was also reportedly used to build support for the caravan with a combination of lies and identity theft:

Just days before the migrant caravan set out from Honduras, an imposter stole the identity of a prominent early supporter on Facebook, using a fake account to try to boost the caravan’s numbers.

Bartolo Fuentes, a Honduran activist, journalist, and former lawmaker told BuzzFeed News that someone used the phony account to send Facebook messages falsely claiming that established migrant groups were organizing the effort. News like that — coming from a well-known public figure in Honduras, such as Fuentes — could go a long way to convincing people to join the group of migrants traveling to the US.

There is as yet no consensus on whether that impostor account actually provided the impetus for the caravan to swell to the size that it did before reaching the United States border to be met with still more disinformation, but the conclusion is inescapable: this caravan, which was met not with open arms and promises of asylum but with threats, violence, and teargas, has been plagued every step of its way by corrosive lies — and whether or not this particular caravan was inspired by disinformation, the aftermath clearly shows its devastating, dehumanizing real-world effects.