SAN PEDRO TAPANATEPEC, Mexico — The boys had left their neighborhood in Honduras within hours of one another in search of the migrant caravan they had seen on the news. One told his mother he was going to soccer practice. The other sneaked out in the middle of the night.
Somehow, they said, they had found each other in the crowd and followed it here to this small town in southern Mexico. But after more than 600 miles, the two friends were at a crossroads.
Despite a throat infection that had turned into a fever, then a cough that rattled his small chest, Isaac Reyes Enamorado was undeterred.
“I’ve never thought of turning back,” the 12-year-old said as he rested Sunday in the shade of Tapanatepec’s central plaza.
Two blocks away, Javier Flores Maldonado lay on a dirty yoga mat, thinking just that. A few days earlier, the 16-year-old got word that his mother had fallen ill after learning that he wasn’t playing soccer but was walking to the United States. Now his family wanted him to come home.
The caravan has drawn the ire of President Trump, who has alleged without evidence that it includes terrorists and gang members and constitutes a potential “invasion.”
There is one prominent feature of the caravan the president has not mentioned: the children.
There were roughly 2,300 minors in the 9,300-member caravan when it entered Mexico on Oct. 19, according to UNICEF, although it appears to have shrunk to between 4,000 and 7,000.
These children are the most vulnerable of asylum seekers: some as young as a few months, many swaddled in blankets or asleep in strollers whose wheels were coming off after two weeks on the road. Others are traveling alone or with siblings.
Their vulnerability was underlined Saturday night when a man was attacked by fellow migrants after he was accused of trying to abduct a child — an accusation that activists assisting the caravan said was false — and again Monday morning when a child injured his head in a fall from a car on which he was trying to hitch a ride.
The danger is heightened for the children traveling without their parents, who — if they continue to the U.S.-Mexico border — will be part of a wave of more than 250,000 unaccompanied minors who have crossed into the United States in the past five years, mostly fleeing gang violence and poverty in Central America.
Javier now faced a choice: abandon his dreams of a better life in America or break his mother’s heart.
As the caravan rested Sunday in Tapanatepec, the normally sleepy town was transformed into a massive playground. A dozen children clambered atop a single slide. Some kicked crushed water bottles over the cobblestones, while others panhandled in hopes of buying a soccer ball. Everywhere there were small voices screaming and coughing and laughing.
Dozens of children were in the river, a murky stream whose brown water provided some relief from the scorching sun.
In the middle of the current splashed 17-year-old identical twins Jordy and Jonny Arguijo Gonzalez. They were almost gaunt from walking, and their feet were covered in sores. Their eyes were red from conjunctivitis picked up from dust on the road or from waters like these, which smelled of sewage. They shared a single pair of pink sandals — found on the road — with their father.
On the river bank, among families washing their clothes on the rocks, Denis Arguijo watched over his sons. He had sold fruit from a cart in Tegucigalpa, and when the twins were old enough, he had asked them to help. But then gang members pressed the teens to sell drugs instead, he said. And when the boys refused, the threats began. The caravan was their way to safety.
And yet, the teens said they felt like the danger had followed them here to Tapanatepec. Young men smoked marijuana on the river banks. Others openly sold it. One offered “polvo” or powder — cocaine.
“There are bad people here, too,” Jordy would say later.
“But we stay away from that,” added Jonny.
Now their father whistled and the boys, chest high in the water, whistled back to show they were all right.
Some children seemed to think of the caravan as an adventure, while others viewed it as punishment for something they didn’t realize they had done.
Angie Perdomo, 6, said she liked walking every day with her mother.
But as Doris Perdomo braided her daughter’s hair, Angie also recounted losing her notebook and crayons as she and her mother fled from tear gas fired by Mexican authorities at the border with Guatemala.
“There were police so we had to run away,” Angie said, adding that they didn’t ride in the back of trucks because “you can trip and fall and die.”
But the hardships on the road were outweighed by the misery back home.
In his hometown of Peña Blanca, Isaac, the 12-year-old who sneaked out in the middle of the night, said he had been one of eight children in a house with plastic tarps for its walls and ceiling. On Oct. 13, his neighbors began heading to San Pedro Sula to join the caravan massing at the bus station.
Isaac borrowed 200 Honduran lempiras — about $8 — from his boss, a vegetable vendor. When he told his mother he wanted to join the caravan so he could become an electrician in the United States and build her a proper house in Peña Blanca, she laughed.
But then, at 3 in the morning on Oct. 14, he stuffed five shirts and two pairs of pants into his backpack and slipped out the front door.
When she realized he’d gone, his mother sent his 19-year-old brother, Fernando, after him. He had found Isaac a week later in Guatemala near the Mexican border.
“I’m here to look after him,” Fernando said. “But it’s also a dream of mine to go to the United States.”
Isaac also found others from his hometown in the caravan, including Javier, the 16-year-old who’d lied to his mother about going to soccer practice. For much of the journey, the two traveled together.
Javier had followed his 23-year-old brother, Alex, to the caravan. Alex said he was deported from Mexico nine months ago and saw the caravan as a chance to get back to his pregnant wife in time for the birth.
But when Javier found his brother after several days on his own, Alex was angry that Javier — the youngest of seven — had left their mother. Then they called her from Mexico and heard about her heart problems.
“This has been hard for him,” Alex said. “He’s been depressed.”
In recent days, as the decision whether to go back weighed on Javier, he and Isaac had drifted apart. While Isaac was eager to jump on whatever truck slowed for them, Javier was not. It was as if something was pulling him back to Honduras.
By Sunday night, it was time to decide. He borrowed his brother’s phone and dialed his mother.
On Monday, Isaac awoke at 2 a.m. inside a hedged garden in the plaza, roused by the sound of activists on loudspeakers. An hour later, the caravan was on the move, streaming out of Tapanatepec on its way to another town 30 miles away.
“Vámonos,” Isaac urged the stragglers, still sleeping on the sidewalk. “Let’s go.” When the caravan passed an outdoor gym on the way out of town, Isaac leaped onto the equipment, doing situps with a smile.
Two hours later, after several miles and a nap in a ditch, Isaac spotted an empty truck and jumped onto the back with two dozen other men and boys, disappearing into the distance just as dawn broke.
Back in Tapanatepec, Javier waited at the police station. He was No. 35 on a list of 80 migrants who had asked for “voluntary departure.”
For four hours he waited, bored and yet anxious to see his mother. When a bus arrived, Javier sprang to his feet.
An official handed him a packet of “oral electrolytes” and a pamphlet warning migrants that they could be attacked by cartels or abandoned by smugglers.
But Javier had already made up his mind. Once he had saved enough money, he was going to try again to make it to the United States — this time using a smuggler.
“That way my mother will know that I’m safe,” he said.
Then he boarded the bus back home.
Julia Galiano contributed to this report.