Illness, fear shrinking caravan

Mexico heat takes toll on migrants; some return to homelands

Central American migrants leave Mapastepec in southern Mexico on their trek toward the U.S. border Thursday.

MAPASTEPEC, Mexico -- Little by little, sickness, fear and police harassment are whittling down the migrant caravan making its way to the U.S. border, with many of the 4,000 to 5,000 people who resumed their journey Thursday complaining of exhaustion.

The travelers, many with children and even pushing toddlers in strollers, departed Mapastepec at dawn with more than 1,000 miles still to go before they reach the U.S. border.

They have advanced just 95 miles as the crow flies since thousands burst across Mexico's southernmost border six days earlier.

With the travelers still weeks, if not months, from reaching the U.S. border, the U.S. administration was planning to send 800 or more troops to the southern border at the direction of President Donald Trump, who has been stoking fears about illegal immigration ahead of the Nov. 6 midterm elections.

Defense Secretary James Mattis was expected to sign an order authorizing the additional troops to support the Border Patrol, according to a U.S. official, who was not authorized to speak publicly about the details because the details had not yet been finalized and spoke on condition of anonymity.

On Thursday, the caravan's long column stretched for more than a mile as the travelers left the town square in Mapastepec in far southern Mexico, where many spent the night. The municipality of some 45,000 people, along with churches and volunteers, offered some medicine and donated water, clothing, baby formula and baby bottles.

As they reached the highway, families with young children packed sidewalks asking for donations and rides to the next stop, Pijijiapan, about 25 miles farther ahead.

Melkin Claros, 34, was traveling with his 7-year old son and a teenage nephew and remained steadfast in his goal. "Everyone's objective is to arrive [in the United States]," he said, adding that he planned to request asylum because gangs made it impossible to live in Honduras.

"It's true you risk your life a lot here, but we risk more in our country."

Still, Mexican officials say nearly 1,700 have dropped out of the caravan to apply for asylum in Mexico, and a few hundred have accepted government offers to bus them back to their home countries.

Carlos Roberto Hernandez of Yoro province in Honduras dropped out after developing a rumbling cough during the scorching daytime heat and evening rains.

"We got hit by rain, and ever since then I've had a cold," Hernandez said. Asked Wednesday if he would make another attempt to reach the U.S., he said emphatically: "No. I'm going to make my life in Honduras."

For Pedro Arturo Torres, it appeared to be homesickness that broke his determination to reach the U.S.

"We didn't know what lay ahead," said Torres. "We want to return to our country, where you can get by -- even if just with beans, but you can survive, there with our families, at peace."

The Mexican federal government's attitude has also played a role in wearing down the caravan.

All the food, old clothes, water and medicine given to the travelers have come from private citizens, church groups or sympathetic local officials.

The federal government hasn't given the travelers a single meal, a bathroom or a bottle of water. It has reserved those only for migrants who go to immigration offices to apply for visas or be deported.

Sometimes federal police have interfered with the caravan.

In at least one instance, reporters saw federal police officers force a half-dozen passenger vans to pull over and make the drivers kick foreigners off, while leaving Mexican passengers aboard.

In Mapastepec, where the main group stayed Wednesday night, it appeared the size of the caravan had diminished slightly. The United Nations estimated earlier in the week that about 7,000 people were in the group. The Mexican government gave its own figure Wednesday of "approximately 3,630."

Parents say they keep going for their children's futures, and fears of what could happen to them back home in gang-dominated Honduras, which was the main motivation for deciding to leave in the first place.

"They can't be alone. ... There's always danger," said Ludin Giron, a Honduran street vendor making the journey with her three young children. "When [gang members] see a pretty girl, they want her for themselves. If they see a boy, they want to get him into drugs."

Refusing either demand can be deadly. Honduras has a homicide rate of about 43 per 100,000 inhabitants, one of the highest in the world for any country not in open war.

Another, smaller caravan earlier this year dwindled greatly as it passed through Mexico, with only about 200 making it to the California border. Those who do make it into the U.S. face a hard time being allowed to stay. U.S. authorities do not consider poverty, which many cite as a reason for migrating, in processing asylum applications.

A Section on 10/26/2018