Migrants in a caravan headed from El Salvador to the United States hitchhike on a Guatemalan highway Thursday. (Ueslei Marcelino/Reuters)

As the sun rose on the Salvador del Mundo monument in San Salvador, dozens of would-be migrants with small backpacks and duffel bags trickled into the central plaza. They settled on benches and stairs to await instructions.

Within an hour, at least 100 had gathered. By 8 a.m., about 300 — all of them responding to the same WhatsApp group message about when and where to meet. From the far corner of the plaza, a voice called out: “Let’s go!”

Within moments, all the migrants had stood up, gathered their belongings — clothes, family trinkets and stuffed animals for the children — and walked through the plaza, across the street and past a gas station.

It was their first steps in a potential 1,600-mile journey to the United States, with hopes of perhaps finding a job, or maybe reuniting with relatives and friends, or possibly seeking asylum to escape the street violence at home.

The group, which left San Salvador on Wednesday, became part of at least the fourth Central American caravan to form since mid-October, when one left San Pedro Sula in Honduras and headed north.

Caravans were once used sparingly to spotlight a particular problem. A group of Central American mothers, for example, has traveled through Mexico each year for 14 years searching for sons and daughters who disappeared on the migrant trail. The Mesoamerican Caravan for a Good Life has organized migrant caravans for years, including one in March that gained international attention.


A caravan member rests at a park in Tecun Uman, Guatemala. (Jose Cabezas/Reuters)

But experts now predict that caravan-style treks could become a more frequent scene along the decades-old migration routes from the region.

President Trump has reacted with combative and unsubstantiated claims that the migrants — including many families and children — pose a threat that requires military mobilization at the southern border.

Still, the national attention has also brought awareness of the potential benefits of the caravans for migrants, such as increased safety along the route and shared resources. This could bring even more such groups in the future, migrant activists say.

“We haven’t previously seen caravans as an organizational strategy to get to the U.S. and cross the border,” said Celia Medrano, chief program officer at Cristosal, a San Salvador-based organization that works with migrants. “This is going to be the new method of irregular immigration.”

Traveling in groups is perceived as safer and cheaper for migrants, who often pay $7,000 to $10,000 to smugglers called coyotes to avoid the dangers of crossing Mexico. Migrants do not pay to join a caravan, and many travel without much cash, to avoid being robbed. Rather than carry many provisions, members of the caravan often rely on the generosity of people along the way to feed them.

But the caravans also present tough logistic and political issues along the routes.

On Oct. 22, Trump threatened to cut off aid to Central American countries if they did not stop the flow of migrants, putting even more pressure on the governments to take a stand.

“The government institutions in all of the countries had become accustomed to making invisible the phenomenon [of undocumented migrants], looking the other way knowing that thousands of people are crossing underground,” Medrano said. “Now they can’t deny it, they can’t ignore it and they can’t avoid confronting it, because it is right under their noses.”


Some of the caravan migrants board a pickup truck while hitchhiking on a highway in Guatemala. (Jose Cabezas/Reuters)

In Honduras, the caravan stoked already high political tensions between President Juan Orlando Hernández and opposition leaders who call his reelection fraudulent. Fliers promoting the Oct. 12 caravan openly criticized the Honduran government and blamed the current administration for creating the conditions from which migrants flee. Hernández has tried to lure migrants back to Honduras with the promise of employment.

Guatemala and Honduras temporarily closed their borders in October, even though a regional agreement allows citizens of Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador and Nicaragua to pass freely between borders with proper documentation. President Salvador Sánchez Cerén of El Salvador has said he will not comply with the U.S. demand to stop migrants from leaving.

Yet while the Salvadoran government recognizes its citizens’ right to leave, it also felt compelled to warn would-be migrants about what is often a harrowing process.

Police, immigration officials and child-protection institutions were dispatched to the plaza where migrants gathered to speak about the travel documents they would need and the dangers of the journey. The underlying message was clear: Don’t go.

“We’ve talked to most of these Salvadoran citizens about the dangers of irregular migration to raise awareness,” Evelyn Marroquin, director of the Directorate General of Migration and Foreigners, said in an official statement. “In the last minute they can reflect and give up this voyage that can be so grave for them and their families.”

These campaigns are “too late” for migrants who already made the decision and understand the risks, Medrano said. The government would have more of an impact, she said, if it worked to reduce the crime and corruption that drive so many migrants to leave.


Migrants don’t pay to join a caravan, and many travel without much cash to avoid being robbed. (Jose Cabezas/Reuters)

The wave of caravans has been particularly challenging for the Mexican government, which has dedicated extensive resources to helping its northern neighbor prevent Central American migrants from reaching the U.S. border, by deporting them and making their journey more difficult.

The Mexican government has tried multiple strategies to stop the caravans — amassing police at the border, promising work permits and offering political asylum — but to no avail. There are still an estimated 4,200 migrants traveling through Mexico in the first of the most recent caravans.

Trying to stop it presents Mexico with a political dilemma. While the United States threatens political retribution for not blocking caravans, Mexican citizens appear to overwhelmingly support the migrants and their journey.

“They are caught between the concerns of the U.S. government, which they want to be responsive to, and Mexican public opinion, which they have to listen to,” said Andrew Selee, president of the Migration Policy Institute, a Washington-based think tank.

As more migrants band together, caravans are gaining legitimacy in the eyes of would-be migrants.

“If images keep being transmitted of people traveling together, and if those people make it further along, more people are going to see the groups as a safe way to travel and, hopefully, be able to reach the U.S. border and request asylum,” said Maureen Meyer, the director for Mexico and migrant rights in the Washington Office on Latin America, a research organization.


Caravan members wait in line for food Thursday in Tecun Uman, Guatemala. (Ueslei Marcelino/Reuters)

Even for groups that assist migrants, travel by the thousands poses new difficulties.

Despite the outpouring of support for the caravans by many migrant rights organizations, these large groups may unknowingly complicate the work of networks designed to help them.

Mexico’s network of migrant shelters and migrant rights, known as Zona Norte, said in a statement that it was concerned that the caravans could overwhelm humanitarian resources on the Mexican side of the border.

The statement suggests that asylum seekers at the northern border “distribute themselves in smaller groups in the different border cities, which would allow better attention to basic needs such as food and first aid.”

The prospect that caravans could become more common hinges partially on what happens once the early groups reach the U.S.-Mexico border. Signs that their asylum applications are being rejected, for example, could deter future groups, Meyer said.

If caravans result in mass deportations, Central American institutions tasked with receiving and reintegrating deportees could collapse, Medrano said.

But as long as the caravans remain a safe and viable option for migrating, experts say they will continue.

“It’s the new way,” Medrano said, “of making visible what was before invisible.”

Joshua Partlow and Kevin Sieff in Mexico City contributed to this report.