MEXICO CITY — For many of the migrants now traveling north through Mexico, the decision to join the caravan was not simply a reaction to violence or poverty in Central America. It was an alternative to one of the world’s most expensive, and most dangerous, human smuggling routes.
Each year, when tens of thousands of Central Americans make the journey to the United States, they travel through a network of smugglers, or coyotes, whose prices have risen exponentially over the past decade, as criminal groups have become increasingly involved in the trade, and as border security has tightened. According to a report last year from the Department of Homeland Security, a journey that cost roughly $2,000 in 2008 cost an average of $9,200 in 2017.
Then came the caravan: a journey to the border offered free of charge, promising security in numbers and public attention. Unlike the smugglers’ proposition, though, it wouldn’t help the migrants cross into the United States.
“The opportunity cost for migrants is the money and what can happen to your body, and the caravan suddenly lowers the sum of those opportunity costs,” said Andrew Selee, the president of the Migration Policy Institute, a Washington-based think tank.
That sentiment was echoed across the caravan, as people described their longtime plans to migrate but their inability to raise enough money to pay for the rising costs of a coyote.
“I could never afford a smuggler, but this way I can make it without borrowing a huge sum,” said Esme Castañeda, 30, from Ocotepeque, Honduras, traveling with her husband, Francisco, and 5-year-old daughter, Elizabeth.
Across the region, many families save for years to pay a smuggler or take out huge loans, sometimes losing their homes in the process. Those payments promise, in theory, a series of safe houses throughout Mexico and three opportunities to cross the U.S.-Mexico border. They also typically promise passage around the interior checkpoints north of the border.
The journey of the caravan, meanwhile, will end in northern Mexico, without a clear plan as to how the majority of the migrants will cross the border. On Thursday, President Trump announced that he would deploy 800 U.S. soldiers to help secure the border ahead of the caravan’s arrival, ostensibly making that border crossing even more difficult.
“These are people who are willing to leave any time when there is possibility of traveling safely, and when it’s free,” said Guadalupe Correa-Cabrera, an expert in migration and human smuggling at George Mason University. “But they know that if you really want to make it, you need to pay a smuggler.”
The caravans have traversed Mexico for several years but typically in much smaller numbers — and with much less attention — than the current group. Organizers said the journey was intended in part as an act of protest, to highlight the plight of Central American migrants. But many would-be migrants saw it as something else: the safest and least expensive way of migrating north.
Getting to the border alone wasn’t always so dangerous. Around 2008, as Mexico’s then-President Felipe Calderón attempted to defeat the country’s drug cartels with the military, some cartels fragmented, and in northeastern Mexico armed groups became increasingly involved in human smuggling. That led to an increase in costs and risks. Border surveillance also led to a surge in smuggling costs, as coyotes had to navigate an increasingly complex series of enforcement mechanisms.
These changes reduced the number of people who could plausibly make it across the U.S.-Mexico border. Before the 1990s, many migrants were able to move across the border without paying a smuggler, working seasonally in the United States before returning home to Mexico or Central America.
“Back then, there were a lot of options. It was less dangerous, and there were people who came back and forth,” said Selee. “Now it’s run by big criminal operations.”
Even after paying smugglers, migrants are extorted and assaulted along the journey north.
In 2010, 72 migrants were killed by gunmen in the town of San Fernando, in northeastern Mexico, after they allegedly refused to pay a ransom. Since then, there have been few such high-profile massacres, but the risks remain. Last year, 10 migrants traveling in the back of a trailer died in a San Antonio parking lot, as the temperatures soared, and they were trapped inside.
Some of the migrants in the caravan had traveled previously with a smuggler, but after being deported they decided it wasn’t worth the money.
Evin Mata had traveled with a smuggler to the United States a few years ago, eventually working in Miami and Fort Lauderdale, Fla. But after being deported, he wondered whether a smuggler was worth the down payment. Traditionally, migrants rationalized the price tag by considering how much they would earn working in the United States. But Mata figured that $10,000 was too much to pay if he was likely to be deported again.
“For me, this is the better option,” he said.