President Donald Trump announces that he wants to limit claims for illegal border crossers. The president described the people in migrant caravans as not legitimate asylum seekers. (Nov. 1) AP
TAPACHULA, Mexico – As thousands of Central American migrants traveling together in a caravan inch closer to the U.S., Irineo Mujica is stuck in this small city wedged between the Pacific Ocean and the Guatemalan border.
Perhaps no single person is more responsible for the huge caravans of migrants headed for the U.S. than Mujica, a longtime activist who was born in Mexico, grew up in Phoenix, and holds dual U.S-Mexican citizenship.
Mujica began coordinating small migrant caravans a decade ago. He wanted to provide Central Americans a safer way to make the trek through Mexico, where migrants often fall prey to criminal organizations — and sometimes Mexican immigration officials and police who demand bribes. He also sought to draw attention to the increasing numbers fleeing conditions in the region, including some of the worst poverty in Latin America, along with gang violence, extortion, political turmoil, and government corruption.
Then last spring, Mujica and other volunteers from the binational activist group Pueblo Sin Fronteras coordinated a caravan that ballooned to 1,500 people, far bigger than the previous caravans.
That caravan, which was on the road from late March until the end of April, drew intense media attention and likely helped inspire the massive exodus of migrants who on Oct. 14 left San Pedro Sula, Honduras, one of the most violent cities in the world, embarking on a 2,000-mile journey toward the U.S.
Mujica was arrested by Mexican federal police on Oct. 18, while participating in a march intended to welcome the thousands of Central American migrants gathered on the Guatemalan side of the river preparing to cross into Mexico.
Two days later, the migrants crashed through a gate and stormed into Mexico across the international bridge from Guatemala, prompting President Donald Trump to deploy thousands of active-duty troops to the U.S. border in a move critics said was more aimed at racking up votes in the November midterm elections than addressing any real threat.
The Arizona Republic tracked down Mujica in Tapachula, where he was meeting with a small group of Central American migrants in the city’s main plaza. His black hair was cropped short, and his face and neck were deeply tanned from walking with migrants in the blazing sun.
Mujica, 48, was awaiting the outcome of a court hearing on Friday related to his arrest on a minor obstruction charge. While the charges are pending, he is forbidden from leaving the state of Chiapas.
But the arrest has not stopped Mujica from continuing to coordinate migrant caravans once they reach Mexico.
He and other volunteers from Pueblo Sin Fronteras traveled with the migrant caravan in the searing heat until it reached Arriaga, the last stop in Chiapas before crossing into the state of Oaxaca. From there, the caravan continued on without Mujica, crossing the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, into the states of Veracruz and Puebla before reaching Mexico City, where as of Thursday the migrants were preparing for a final push to Tijuana.
Mujica, however, returned to Tapachula.
During a 30-minute interview, Mujica described how he feared for his life following his arrest. He also responded to claims that the caravans are politically motivated, and offered his thoughts on why the caravans have grown so large, and what it will take to stem the flow of Central Americans headed for the U.S.
Currently, about 56 families are waiting in Nogales to apply for asylum status. Most of the migrants are from Guerrero, Guatemala, and Honduras. Arizona Republic
Who is Irineo Mujica?
Mujica said he was born in the state of Michoacan, and is part of the Purepecha indigenous group native to that part of Mexico.
He said he decided to come to the U.S. when he was 13 to work and save money to pay for his sister’s quinceañera — 15th birthday celebration — because his parents were too poor to pay for it themselves.
After traveling to the border by bus, he said he crossed the border illegally near Nogales and headed for Phoenix, where an older brother lived.
Mujica said his parents later followed him to the U.S. and his family gained legal status through the 1986 amnesty because he and his parents worked on farms picking crops.
He graduated from North High School and studied mass communications at Phoenix College before becoming a migrant activist, he said.
He runs a migrant shelter in Sonoyta, a border town in Sonora, across from Lukeville.
He said he doesn’t talk about his family out of fear they could be targeted because of his work as an activist.
In 2018, Mujica helped search for a missing migrant in the desolate Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument in southern Arizona. The search was documented in The Arizona Republic’s Pulitzer Prize-winning series exploring the untold stories and unintended consequences of Trump’s plan to build a massive wall on the border with Mexico.
Mujica said he is now based in Tijuana. The city, across the border from San Diego, has become a staging area for migrant caravans hoping to ask U.S. authorities for asylum at the official border crossing.
How he was arrested
Mujica traveled to southern Mexico after hearing a migrant caravan that started in Honduras had turned into a mass exodus and was moving through Guatemala.
He said he was taking part in a march in Ciudad Hidalgo to demonstrate “solidarity” with the thousands of migrants amassing on the Guatemalan side of the river when he was arrested.
Mujica said he was standing in the middle of the group of about 100 people when Mexican federal police and officials from Mexico’s National Institute of Migration, which is in charge of enforcing immigration laws, rushed into the crowd and snatched only him.
Most in the crowd were Central American migrants who had reached Mexico ahead of the caravan and were planning to seek asylum in the U.S., he said.
“Their target was not the caravan. It was me,” Mujica said.
National Institute of Migration officials were conducting an immigration operation when Mujica was arrested, the agency said in a statement. When officials asked Mujica to show his identification, he attacked members of the National Institute of Migration, municipal police and federal police, the statement said.
Video posted on social media shows Mujica struggling as immigration officers in white uniforms and federal police in blue uniforms shove him into a van with National Institute of Migration markings.
Mujica denied he attacked immigration officials or police.
“At the end of the day, they didn’t have anything, so they said, ‘He interfered,’ by doing my work, by doing my chants and everything, ‘He is interfering with the work of an immigration officer,'” he said.
Mujica accused police of roughing him up. After being arrested by federal police, Mujica said he was turned over to municipal police, who held him in jail for 24 hours until he was told to sign a document declaring he had being released from jail.
Instead of being released, municipal police handed him back to federal police, Mujica said.
Mujica said he believes the document was to provide “cover” for local police in case anything happened to him while he was in custody.
“When I got out of the jail, they said, ‘You are free,’ and I wasn’t free. I was just handed to another police,” Mujica said. “So I thought, ‘Maybe this is it,’ you know.”
Mujica said federal police took him to Tapachula, about 45 minutes away, where he was driven around for hours with his hands tied. Mujica said the officers tried to “torture” him psychologically by making comments insinuating he was going to die.
“They didn’t (directly) say, ‘We are going to kill you,'” Mujica said. Rather, they said things like, “Just make sure what happens to him isn’t like what happened to the other one that died.”
They were “trying to terrorize me. Trying to purposely make me think they were going to kill me,” Mujica said.
Mujica also accused immigration officials of threatening to deport him to the United States.
“At the beginning, they said they were going to deport me, but I am a Mexican citizen,” Mujica said. “Because I have dual citizenship, they were trying to deport me back. According to them, they had orders from Donald Trump — which I don’t know if it’s true or not — to send me back to the United States.”
Despite days of walking, illness, and uncertainty, Honduran native Joel Eduardo Espinar is determined to continue the arduous trek with his wife and children as part of a migrant caravan winding its way through Mexico toward the U.S. border. (Nov 2) AP
Why he was targeted
Mujica believes the Mexican government targeted him to try to stop the caravan.
Tensions between Mexico and the United States had escalated over the caravan and officials know he has years of experience coordinating migrant caravans.
“They were trying to do what Guatemala did, which is try to take the leaders out and then the problem will disappear,” he said. “They are trying to silence my voice, pretty much.”
He believes the Mexican government was pressured by the United States, perhaps directly by Trump.
“They are under a lot of pressure from the United States, and according to what I heard, they were trying to show Donald Trump, to make it public, that I was the scapegoat, like ‘Here, we got one,'” Mujica said. “Because Donald Trump knows my name. He won’t admit it, but he knows my name, and he actually congratulated the Mexican government and the federal police for putting me in jail.”
Arizona Republic reporters explain the difference between seeking asylum at the border and attempting to immigrate illegally. Carly Henry, The Republic | azcentral.com
Are partisan activists funding the caravan?
Mujica called “ridiculous” the claims that the migrant caravan is funded by political activists, either from the left or the right.
Trump told reporters he “wouldn’t be surprised” if the caravan was funded by George Soros, a liberal billionaire and Jewish immigrant whose foundation contributes to Democratic causes. Trump’s comments spread the unfounded conspiracy theory that has continued to fester on social media.
Robert Bowers, the man charged with killing 11 people worshiping in a Pittsburgh synagogue in October, used social-media accounts to post extensively about the caravan. He circulated an image of refugees in Guatemala purportedly climbing into a truck bearing a Star of David on it, according to USA TODAY.
In a series of tweets, Trump also made unsubstantiated claims that “criminals and unknown Middle Easterners” were mixed in with the caravan. He also posted a video that purported to show a man handing out cash to migrants, suggesting Democrats were funding the caravan. “Can you believe this, and what Democrats are allowing to be done to our Country?” Trump tweeted.
Mujica said “it’s ridiculous to think Democrats” would orchestrate the caravan, given the backlash it generated.
“If the Democrats did this, it’s like shooting themselves in the leg. … They are (the ones) getting hurt. No one is getting more political mileage out of this than Donald Trump and the Republicans.”
Mujica also rejected a competing conspiracy theory that Republicans secretly orchestrated the caravan to fire up Trump’s base before the midterm elections.
“The Republicans see migrants as animals. Just one is too much,” Mujica said. They would “never, ever” risk helping migrants reach the U.S. border “no matter how much political gain.”
That the caravan coincided with the U.S. midterm elections was bad timing, Mujica admits.
But he said the caravan was a spontaneous mass exodus of people fleeing desperate conditions in Honduras, and it grew as it moved through Central America and into Mexico.
“If anyone organized this, it was the violence in their country, and the hunger,” he said.
“They have lost everything,” he added. “If you don’t have a job, your life is in danger and your kids (aren’t safe), so if there is an opportunity to walk and get out, you will take it. It’s a no-brainer. And it’s not that anybody is paying them. How much would they pay you to leave your house, your kids and everything to go through this hell? Because this is hell.”
Migrant caravans winding their way toward the U.S. are reigniting rhetoric and arguments about immigration and border security. And it’s not the first time. USA TODAY
Why so many large migrant caravans?
Mujica said increasing numbers of migrants, among them parents with children, are choosing to travel in large groups for safety reasons in hopes of reaching the U.S. and asking for asylum to stay permanently.
Along the way, they face many threats, including from criminal organizations, that prey on migrants.
“They call it a trail of death … Out of 10 women, six are raped when they come to the United States,” he said. “It is hell going through this (journey). But there is some safety in numbers. … There is a lot of repression, the police are always on top of you. You sleep in the middle of nowhere. The heat. The elements. Kids have died. There are so many dangers.”
Activist or villain?
Mujica said he is aware of the controversy his group Pueblo Sin Fronteras has generated on social media, where volunteer coordinators are either hailed as saviors helping desperate migrants escape horrendous conditions or vilified as de facto smugglers helping migrants gain illegal entry into the U.S.
Mujica said he isn’t trying to create controversy.
“I never did this to look good or bad. It is to help the people who are most vulnerable. I am worried about the women, and the kids and the people who are going through it. I am worried about my country. I am doing my part. I am not the solution, I am just a little grain in the sand, but I am trying to do my part.”
What will stop more caravans from coming?
Trump has vowed to stop the caravan from entering the U.S. illegally and has ordered thousands of activity-duty military troops to assist the Border Patrol with security on the southern border. The troops already have started laying miles of concertina wire.
On Thursday, the Trump administration also announced a plan to prevent migrants who enter the U.S. illegally from applying for asylum.
But Mujica said he doesn’t believe those measures will deter Central American migrants from trying to reach the U.S.
Long term, he said, the only way to stem the tide is to attack the “root of the problem” — reducing the violence and poverty driving people to leave.
“Number one, we have to do something about the violence in Central America. Second, we need to lift up these places. They are small states. They are small countries that can easily be lifted up,” he said.
Follow Daniel González on Twitter: @azdangonzalez
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