For over a century, Central-American immigrants have made their way to the U.S.-Mexico border. In October 2018, the largest ever “caravan,” or cohort, of migrants—well over 4,000 strong and 80 percent Honduran—traveled to the northern Mexico border from locations across Mexico. On January 13, 2021, yet another caravan of more than 3,000 departed Honduras and El Salvador with its sights on the U.S. Though the caravan was dissolved long before reaching North America, the recurrence of such migrant groups highlights ongoing crises of poverty and crime in the Central American region.
Like previous cohorts of migrants, the 2021 caravan featured Hondurans traveling in groups of hundreds or thousands in attempts to weather the immense danger of a solo or small-group journey to the U.S. from Central America. The caravan began its travels one week prior to the inauguration of Joe Biden, who campaigned on a promise to relax the strict immigration policies of former President Donald Trump. As the U.S. transitioned from one presidential administration to the next, Hondurans in the caravan put one foot in front of another and began an arduous journey northwards.
Often fleeing poverty, unemployment, gang violence, and natural disasters in their home countries, migrants like those in the 2021 caravan face great risks on a journey to the U.S. Perpetrators of drug and human trafficking, extortion, and murder run rampant in the Mexican countryside, where hundreds of thousands of migrants trek through towards the U.S. in hopes of accessing a land of opportunity. More than 20,000 migrant kidnappings are reported each year, and current estimates of total missing migrants number between 72,000 and 120,000.
Honduras has been a common country of origin for asylum seekers in the United States; a plethora of issues drive tens of thousands of Honduran citizens to flee the country annually. The nation has both one of the fastest-growing economies and the highest levels of poverty in Central America. The World Bank reported in 2016 that two-thirds of the country’s roughly 9 million people live below the poverty line, and one out of every five Hondurans in rural areas lives in extreme poverty. This widespread destitution is largely due to rampant unemployment and a lack of job opportunities in the nation’s overwhelmingly agricultural economy. Many of those who stay in Honduras rely on remittance and limited government aid to survive.
Another factor that drives migration is the nation’s mounting rates of violence. Particularly in urban areas, gang activity has been on the rise for over two decades, and resource-deprived police departments can do little to thwart the criminal affairs. For example, in the city of San Pedro Sula, the origin of the 2021 caravan, a police department of 50 officers has jurisdiction over a population of 230,000 spread across 189 neighborhoods. The lack of law enforcement gives Honduras one of the highest impunity rates in the world.
The absence of rigorous criminal investigation and prosecution is most apparent in crimes committed against women. Femicide, the killing of a woman or girl on account of her gender, pervades Honduras; femicide criminals remain at large. The UN has reported that 95% of Honduran femicides go unreported every year—as described by Honduran activist Neesa Medina, “men can do anything they want to women in Honduras.” Such statistics and realities have led women to flee the country in record numbers, often as a part of caravans similar to the 2021 Honduran caravan.
However, the January 13 caravan had scarcely coalesced before it was forced to dissolve. After circumventing some 2,000 police officers and soldiers stationed at the border between Honduras and Guatemala, the caravan briefly settled in Guatemala. Near the village of Vado Hondo, the caravan encountered a series of roadblocks and Guatemalan security forces armed with tear gas and batons. After violent—and unsuccessful—exchanges with security forces, the caravan halted its progress and was subsequently dissolved. Some migrants disappeared into the mountains. Officials deported former members of the caravan and bussed members back across the Honduran-Guatemalan border. The migrants were then handed off to Honduran authorities that offered rides back to their respective hometowns.
While the disbanding of the caravan realized the interests of Guatemalan law enforcement, the event marked a tremendous disappointment for the migrants whose aspirations were curtailed upon their return to Honduras. This caravan, the first of 2021, evidences the abhorrent conditions that prompted migrants to flee the country. And, as conditions in Central America continue to deteriorate, it promises not to be the last.