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A grainy video from Guatemala sparks Trump conspiracy theory

President Trump and Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) cherry-picked a video of Honduran migrants. Then they used it to float unfounded conspiracy theories. (Video: Meg Kelly/The Washington Post)

“BREAKING: Footage in Honduras giving cash 2 women & children 2 join the caravan & storm the US border @ election time. Soros? US-backed NGOs? Time to investigate the source!”

— Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.), in a tweet, Oct. 17, 2018

“Can you believe this, and what Democrats are allowing to be done to our Country?”

— President Trump, in a tweet, Oct. 18, 2018

“Now we’re starting to find out, and I won’t say it 100 percent, I’ll put a little tiny question mark at the end … a lot of money’s been passing through people to come up and try and get to the border by Election Day, because they think that’s a negative for us. … They [Democrats] wanted that caravan, and there are those that say that caravan didn’t just happen, it didn’t just happen.”

— Trump, in a rally in Montana, Oct. 18, 2018

What’s happening in this grainy and abbreviated footage from Central America? Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) tweeted a video he said was from Honduras of women and children receiving cash to “join the caravan” and “storm” the U.S.-Mexico border.

A caravan of Honduran migrants crossed the border into Guatemala on Oct. 15. The next day, President Trump threatened Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández on Twitter, saying that if the group didn’t turn around, there would be “no more money or aid.”

Gaetz’s tweet and the video in question appeared just a day after that. Without offering evidence, Gaetz implied that liberal billionaire George Soros or nongovernmental organizations were paying the migrants.

The day after the Gaetz tweet, Trump tweeted the same video. And hours later, at his Montana rally Oct. 18, Trump floated his own conspiracy theory: that this was all a big ruse financed by his political opponents. The caravan “didn’t just happen,” and “a lot of money has been passing through to people to come up and try to get to the border by Election Day because [Democrats] think that’s a negative for us,” Trump told the crowd.

All of it seemed outlandish. It’s no secret that rampant violence and poverty in Central America have spurred thousands of families to flee for the United States in recent years. “Time to investigate the source!” Gaetz tweeted. Let’s take him up on his call to action.

The Facts

The one-minute video clip Gaetz tweeted shows no direct evidence of Democrats, NGOs or Soros-funded groups paying migrants.

What the video does show: dozens of people separated by gender are standing in loose lines along a roadside. Many of them are carrying bags or backpacks. Two men in white T-shirts and jeans make their way down the lines handing out what appears to be cash (red-and-white rectangular bills). One of the men is seen carrying a handgun in his waistband. The other is wearing a baseball cap that says “Fox,” the logo for a clothing company.

Through a little digital detective work, we found that the video was shot when the caravan was passing through Chiquimula, Guatemala — near the border with Honduras but not in Honduras, as Gaetz said. (After we sent an email to Gaetz’s office pointing this out, along with several questions, Gaetz tweeted a correction. He and his staff did not respond to our questions.)

The cash being handed out appears to be Guatemalan currency. Gaetz’s video is grainy and hard to parse. But a Facebook video of the same scene, which was posted before Gaetz’s tweet, has a sharper resolution.

But who are the men? Why is one of them armed? And where did the money come from?

On Twitter, Gaetz said he got the video from a Honduran government official. (Never mind the Facebook video that surfaced before his tweet.)

U.S. and Latin American journalists and humanitarian and nonprofit organization workers on the ground consistently report that these caravans are rare and mostly self-organized, by residents with real concerns about safety and poverty in Central America. The messaging app WhatsApp is a hub of activity for these caravan members. They travel in large groups to ensure a safe journey. Yet there are several wide-eyed theories flying around about who’s leading these particular migrants and who might be behind the men with the money. Let’s break them down:

  • George Soros or U.S.-backed NGOs. Soros, a Hungarian American businessman who is Jewish, is often cast as the boogeyman in right-wing conspiracy theories. But usually his critics make a bare effort to scare up at least some trace of evidence to support their case. Gaetz didn’t even try. Anyway, the Open Society Foundations, which is funded by Soros, was quick to say that neither it nor Soros was “funding this effort.” Regional experts say that U.S.-backed NGOs have worked to increase public safety and economic stability, mitigating the insecurity that often contributes to why people flee in the first place. We couldn’t find any evidence that an NGO was behind this effort to hand out cash in Guatemala.
  • Democrats. Trump at his rally hinted that Democrats might be behind this caravan. There’s no evidence to support this theory. In a video message in Spanish, the acting U.S. ambassador to Honduras said to migrants: “Please, go back to your country. You are being deceived with false promises from political and criminal leaders.” That’s a vague statement, but it doesn’t make reference to any fanciful theories about Soros, Democrats or NGOs. Instead, the statement suggests that internal Honduran politics is behind the exodus. The White House did not respond to our questions. 
  • The Honduran opposition party. The Honduran government says that an opposition party, Partido Libertad y Refundación, organized the caravan as part of a political ploy. A leader of the Honduran opposition party, former president Manuel Zelaya, who was deposed in a coup in 2009, released a statement saying the party was not involved. Out-migration, security and poverty are some of the most contested political issues in Honduras.  Update: On Oct. 23, Vice President Mike Pence echoed the Honduran president’s claim, but provided no evidence to support it. He told the Washington Post in an interview, “What the president of Honduras told me [is that the caravan] was organized by leftist groups in Honduras, financed by Venezuela and sent north to challenge our sovereignty and challenge our border.” The Daily Beast reported this theory spun from a report by HCH, Honduras’s most-watched news channel. In the report, a woman who claimed to be a migrant claimed Bartolo Fuentes, a former Honduran lawmaker from the opposition, was the organizer. She told the network Fuentes promised to pay for the migrants food and transportation, something Fuentes strongly refutes. He told the Daily Beast, “In Honduras, the government wants to minimize why people are leaving—they know they are going to leave and they want to say they are doing so because of lies and the opposition, not the conditions that they created. This is in line with what the United States is saying—that there are false promises being made. And this pro-government news program played into that messaging, trying to say that there is financing when really people just need to get out.” 
  • Chiquimula residents. Reports from journalists and nonprofits following the caravan have noted that Guatemalan locals have been providing water bottles, spare cash and other supplies to support migrants on the long journey to the U.S.-Mexico border. A photographer from Agence France-Presse in Guatemala confirmed this, saying locals often provide money, food and clothes to migrants, though he could not say that’s what was happening in this video shared by Gaetz and Trump. But that doesn’t really explain the presence of an armed man or the organized effort to distribute cash. Annie Bird, director of the Guatemala Human Rights Commission, said it’s not unusual for people to carry arms in Chiquimula, unlike in other parts of the country. It’s a mix of safety concerns and local culture, she said. Other experts confirmed Bird’s assessment, noting that because Chiquimula is along a migratory route, many of which are controlled by narcos, it’s typical to see an increase in security. 
  • UPDATE: The cartels. Gaetz told the New York Times he, “now suspects that the men handing out money were cartel members trying to sow good will and subvert the government.” Given the location and the presence of armed personnel, initially, this seemed likely. However, experts noted cartels work in consort with the coyotes who profit by smuggling people to the U.S. border. In other words, it would work against their interest to support the caravan. 

The Pinocchio Test

Multiple reports from nongovernmental organizations active on the ground have said that the movement was organized and grew organically. That’s not hard to believe. There are plenty of reasons to emigrate from Honduras. There is the massive and rising poverty level. The worsening security situation, as gangs extort and destroy small businesses. And all of that before noting that more than 10 people are killed a day, on average. Plus, moving in a large group provides protection for individuals, saving the expense of a coyote to shepherd them through the journey north.

While we haven’t been able to pin down exactly who was distributing cash in Guatemala, there is no evidence to back up claims that Soros, U.S.-backed NGOs or the Democrats are secretly organizing this caravan. As always at The Fact Checker, the burden of proof is on the speaker. This seems to be a cherry-picked video reused as a political scare tactic. For their willingness to promote propaganda, Trump and Gaetz earn Four Pinocchios.

Four Pinocchios

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Washington Post rating logoWashington Post Rating:
Four Pinocchios
“BREAKING: Footage in Honduras giving cash 2 women & children 2 join the caravan & storm the US border @ election time. Soros? US-backed NGOs? Time to investigate the source!”
in a tweet
Wednesday, October 17, 2018
Share the Facts
Washington Post rating logoWashington Post Rating:
Four Pinocchios
"A lot of money’s been passing through people to come up and try and get to the border by Election Day because they think that’s a negative for us. They [Democrats] wanted that caravan, and there are those that say that caravan didn’t just happen, it didn’t just happen.”
in a rally in Montana
Thursday, October 18, 2018