The migrant caravan that began in October in Honduras was touted on Facebook as a means of escaping poverty and violence.
It didn’t turn out that way.
The plan was to head north through Mexico and apply for asylum in the United States. But after 7,000 migrants joined in, politics and public opinion turned against the caravan.
Now most of the migrants are stuck in Tijuana, where factory work pays dismally and two of their number have already been murdered. Many are dispirited, some are ill, and few have any idea what the future holds.
How this happened is a subject of vehement debate. But investigation reveals a dynamic that doesn’t involve George Soros or right-wing provocateurs: The capricious nature of social media played an outsize role in the migrant caravan’s rise and fall.
On Oct. 4, Bartolo Fuentes, a 54-year-old Honduran radio host and former deputy in the left-wing Libre Party, posted a flyer on his Facebook page announcing a “Caminata del Migrante,” or “Trek of the Migrants.”
“We don’t leave because we want to go,” the flyer proclaimed in Spanish. “Violence and poverty expel us.”
The flyer said the caravan would begin on Oct. 12 at the Grand Terminal bus station in San Pedro Sula, the second-largest city in Honduras.
Fuentes told L.A. Weekly that the flyer wasn’t his doing. “Someone sent it to me, I saw it in a WhatsApp group,” he said. “I really don’t remember who.”
But Fuentes admitted, “I sent it to reporters from the newspapers and after that I posted it.” Along with the flyer, he announced on his Facebook page, “We’re going to accompany these people.”
No evidence has emerged to support the suggestion that George Soros collaborated with Fuentes or funded the caravan, even though President Trump said on Oct. 31 that he “wouldn’t be surprised” if the Democratic mega-donor was behind it.
What really happened was something more powerful than a mere billionaire: the exponential effect of social media.
In Honduras, 90 percent of the population uses mobile telephony. Facebook remains popular and WhatsApp is ubiquitous. In this wired environment, word of the caravan began to radiate.
“People naturally wonder, how did all these people come together and start walking at the same time?” says Dr. Karen North of the USC Annenberg School for Communication, an expert in social media and psychology.
“The fact that it spread virally in Central America through smartphones is not in the least surprising.”
The process began with Fuentes’ Oct. 4 posting, which spawned more than 200 shares and drew dozens of comments, such as “I’m interested,” “I’m ready for the trip” and “Here we go.”
From there, the news traveled via Facebook and WhatsApp groups. Genesis Barahona, 22, who’s six months pregnant, told L.A. Weekly she saw the flyer “in the internet, in Facebook,” and decided to join the caravan in hopes her baby would be born in the United States.
North says, “The message spread exponentially because it resonated with the needs of people who were desperate.”
On the morning of Oct. 12, around 200 people gathered at the Grand Terminal bus station. By evening the crowd had grown to 600.
“I can’t stay in this country because there’s no work and it’s unsafe,” one woman said. “We don’t have jobs,” echoed a father. “We’re trying to find a better future for our families.”
HCH’s broadcast spurred more people to join in. “When people receive a message from a social network and then see independent confirmation, that’s a powerful combination,” North says.
By Oct. 13 the caravan had increased to nearly 2,000 people. “I read the information about the caravan and saw the television,” said 34-year-old Medardo Maldonado. “Then more people arrived, it grew bigger.”
As the caravan headed toward Guatemala, Fuentes and others posted pictures and videos, and sometimes streamed live. The scenes of migrants waving and cheering had a contagious effect.
“In each block of every city, there were people waiting for us,” Ever Ramos, 24, told L.A. Weekly. “More and more were coming.”
But a virally formed exodus, unlike a flash mob, doesn’t disperse as quickly as it forms. It’s an ongoing event that has enormous practical and political implications.
“Social media can create a mirage,” North explains. “People start thinking that it’s more real than it is, and that there must be a plan.”
Fuentes admitted that lack of planning was a fundamental flaw. “Next time people will be organized, aware of what they need,” he said. But for the Oct. 12 caravan, there was no chance at a do-over.
The northbound migration swelled to more than 7,000 people, much larger than previous Central American migrant caravans. Fuentes told L.A. Weekly that the caravan was “easily three to four times bigger” than he expected.
With the U.S. midterm election approaching, the caravan became highly controversial, especially when it reached Mexico. Rather than crossing legally from Guatemala into Mexico, many of the migrants forded a river.
Others simply forced their way in.
“People started yelling, ‘Throw the gates!’” said Maldonado. “You couldn’t control them.”
President Trump didn’t like what he saw. “Please go back, you will not be admitted into the United States unless you go through the legal process,” he tweeted on Oct. 29. “This is an invasion of our Country and our Military is waiting for you!”
In mid-November, as the caravan reached Tijuana, about 6,000 migrants encamped at a sports complex near the U.S. border that the city converted to a makeshift shelter. But the migrants soon discovered that hospitality has its limits.
After the caravan arrived in Tijuana, a Honduran woman, later identified as Miriam Celaya, publicly criticized the free food.
“Look at what they are giving,” she said to a reporter from German broadcaster DW, while holding up a plate of beans and tortillas. “Like they are feeding pigs!”
This didn’t play well in a culture where beans and tortillas are dietary staples. Memes began circulating, which prompted an artist called Mister Cumbia to compose a satiric song.
Mister Cumbia, whose real name is Ivan Montemayor, told L.A. Weekly that he’s a Mexican immigrant living in Virginia who follows social media trends in his home country. “This is my job,” he said. “I take a situation or meme and make it a song.”
His video, “No Quiero Frijoles” or “I Don’t Want Beans,” with a dancing pig, platefuls of beans and Celaya’s scowling face, drew more than 10 million views. This had a profound effect on popular sentiment.
“Mexicans don’t want them here,” said Tijuana resident Cesar Mendoza, 38. “They talk bad about us, they don’t like our food, and some of them are violent.”
Celaya later apologized but social media is unforgiving, and the single mom received death threats. “There are so many examples where people’s lives have been ruined, at least temporarily, by some offhand comment,” North says.
Montemayor defended his work as giving voice to Mexicans. “My song says what a lot of people are thinking.”
On Nov. 25, Mexican newspaper El Universal released survey results showing that seven in 10 Mexicans held a negative view of the caravan. That same day, the migrants’ deteriorating situation took a turn for the worse.
Several hundred migrants marched toward the U.S. border to protest the Trump administration’s asylum policies. When some of them attacked a dilapidated section of border fencing, U.S. Customs & Border Protection fired tear gas canisters. Onlookers recorded the incident on cellphones.
Back at the Tijuana shelter, thousands of migrants didn’t participate in any of this. But cellphone videos on Twitter and YouTube seldom impart a sense of context.
“Whoever videotapes the incident controls the narrative,” says North, bringing to mind Marshall McLuhan’s adage that the medium is the message. “It doesn’t mean that the video is a comprehensive or fair representation.”
The cellphone videos of migrants, mostly young men, breaching the border fence, played into Trump’s hand. The next day he tweeted that “they are NOT coming into the U.S.A. We will close the Border permanently if need be.”
“They tried to cross by force,” said Mendoza, a sales rep at a nearby tour business. “You don’t want that in your country, and we don’t want that in our country.”
Dispirited by the setbacks, thousands of migrants waited anxiously. As they looked toward the horizon, they could see storm clouds gathering — literally.
What happened next was an act of God rather than a social media phenomenon. Starting in the wee hours on Nov. 29, rain began to fall. Soon the overcrowded shelter became flooded with mud and sewage.
By the time the rain stopped, health officials estimated that about one-third of the migrants had respiratory illness or flu-like symptoms. Many also suffered from a rampant lice infestation.
The city opened a second shelter, but so far only about 2,000 migrants have moved there. “Little by little the caravan is getting smaller,” Maria Galvez, 23, told L.A. Weekly. “A lot of people are going back to Honduras.”
Hundreds of migrants are camping in the streets, including Evangelista Aguirre, 32, a mom with three kids. “I want to cross but it’s very difficult,” she said.
Others are looking for work, but factories south of the border generally pay less than $100 per week. Tijuana is among the most dangerous cities in the world, and on Dec. 15, two migrant teens were murdered in an apparent robbery attempt.
“We’re in the street,” Aguirre said. “It’s dangerous. What are we going to do?”
Doug Kari is a lawyer and technology executive based in Irvine. Maynor Baquedano of Santa Ana and Ismael Mejia of Rosarito Beach, Mexico, assisted with this article.