Follow three best friends crossing into Mexico with the migrant caravan

Braving the uncertain future is better than the certainty of desperation, danger, and lack of opportunity Salvadorans face in their home country.

Photograph by Moises Saman, Magnum Photos/National Geographic
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A caravan of Salvadoran migrants cross the Suchiate river border from Guatemala into Mexico after Mexican immigration authorities declined their request to legally transit through Mexican territory as they make their way north toward the US border.
Photograph by Moises Saman, Magnum Photos/National Geographic

They met on WhatsApp and decided to walk 2,000 miles together. In mid-October Jackelin Martinez joined one of the dozen messenger groups forming after Salvadorans watched as thousands of migrants from neighboring Honduras start trekking toward the United States in a caravan. The conversation on WhatsApp was a constant churn of information, sometimes dozens of messages a minute with prayers, packing lists, and meeting points. Jackelin had always wanted to leave El Salvador, to see the world and find a good job, and traveling in a group offered strength in numbers.

Multiple departure dates for the caravan from El Salvador were circulating, so she asked which was right. I’ll find out for you, a member of the chat wrote to her privately. For the next two weeks she and Miguel Funes chatted about their plans. He lived in the capital of San Salvador and she lived in a village in the northeast. He sounded serious and she trusted him immediately. Soon she asked if he would meet her at the bus station and they could go to the meeting point together.

Something else added to her sense of urgency: as a teenager she’d been sexually abused by her neighbor, and just a month earlier he’d gotten out of prison halfway through his 14-year sentence. He moved in right next door. Although she didn’t think he was part of MS-13 or Barrio 18, the two gangs that have turned El Salvador into the deadliest country outside a war zone, her friends warned her that he could be out for revenge. She revealed her dilemma to the WhatsApp group: Was her life in danger? Yes, they said, come.

The night before leaving she and Glenda Vásquez, a childhood friend, climbed off a bus in San Salvador’s central terminal and Miguel was there waiting. Gangly and goofy with wire-rimmed glasses, he started waving before realizing it was them. He was a year into nursing school and Jackelin was planning to start a degree in tourism the next year. They felt like they’d known each other forever. Almost immediately the three decided that either they’d all make it or none would. Then they boarded a city bus to Salvador del Mundo, a central plaza encircled by traffic where hundreds of people sat along on the tiered grass, resting against backpacks and eating snacks handed out by volunteers.

Early the next morning, as the sun came up, they went in search of their last pupusas, traditional fried corn patties stuffed with pork, beans, and cheese. Two hours later, the plaza was empty and more than 1,500 immigrants marched west and then north toward the border with Guatemala. They hitched rides on the backs of trucks and walked under the glaring sun on the highway shoulder.

Before they lost each other and before they had to cross a churning river, the three new friends hopped on a bus to take them part way to the Guatemalan border. Glenda and Jackelin wore matching croc-style sandals and carried backpacks stuffed with a couple changes of clothing. Someone played a satirical song called Three Times a Wetback on their phone and the whole bus sang along:

When I came from my country of El Salvador

with the intention of arriving to the United States,

I knew that I'd need more than just courage,

I knew that I might end up halfway there.

They passed easily through the border to Guatemala, which doesn’t require a visa from El Salvador, but the real test lay north. To get into Mexico legally the group would need visas, which they didn’t have. Two weeks earlier, the Honduran caravan had clashed with police, who fired tear gas and rubber bullets at crowds packed onto the border bridge. Thousands of people ended up wading across the river below and into Mexico, where they’ve continued walking north.

In the past month, the lively Guatemalan border town of Tecún Umán has seen an estimated 15,000 immigrants pass through on their journey north. They were ready for the Salvadorans who arrived on November 1st and spread across the central plaza, laying washed clothes out to dry on the curbs and hedges. Volunteers at a purple-stucco church handed out Styrofoam plates of meat, rice, and tortillas. Local families passed by on the way to the cemetery carrying bundles of flowers for Day of the Dead celebrations. A soccer game took over one street and volunteers taped down sheets of white paper for kids to color.

The night before leaving for Mexico, Jackelin, Glenda, and Miguel huddled close in the central plaza next to a bubbling fountain. They’d met in San Salvador just 48 hours ago and traveled most of the night before. They slept with their heads on backpacks and feet nestled among shopping bags. Glenda curled into Miguel’s shoulder. They drifted in and out, fearful of being left behind. At 3 a.m., the plaza began to stir and they got up to find breakfast. A few blocks away someone was handing out tacos. The rest of the plaza rose and walked through the dark streets until a turn led them to a tall yellow fence. There, the group sat down. As the sun rose, men shaved using reflections in their phones, and two blocks dense with people were serenely quiet. Jackelin dozed and Glenda played on her phone, which hadn’t worked since leaving El Salvador. They were both anxious about the long walk ahead.

“I wish I’d packed muscle pain cream,” Glenda said.

“I wish I’d brought my mom,” Jackelin replied.

Pressed against the gate, a man with a megaphone negotiated with the Guatemalan officials, promising that the group would be nonviolent and orderly. “Let us realize the American dream,” he blared. “How long are we going to wait?” The sun had come up when an official from the Mexican consulate took the megaphone and announced they’d be allowed in without documents.

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Salvadoran migrants gather near the official border crossing between Guatemala and Mexico, in the Guatemala border town of Tecun Uman, hoping to be allowed to cross legally into Mexico as they make their way north toward the U.S. border. Hours later, Mexican immigration authorities denied their request, and the caravan of migrants crossed the border illegally by walking across a shallow section of the Suchiate river, the natural border between Guatemala and Mexico.

When the gate opened, women and children entered first, making a single line cordoned by Guatemalan riot police. Strollers and children being carried on shoulders were pushed to the front and through the gate. Glenda and Jackelin ended up on the other side of the fence, heading toward Mexico without Miguel. And soon, the plan broke down.

A bridge separates the Guatemalan and Mexican border, and when the first group crossed they found a closed gate, laced with barbed wire. A Mexican immigration officer explained through the bars that they weren’t being let in freely—they were being offered a refugee status visa. If they took it, they’d have to spend up to 45 days in a migrant shelter waiting for asylum paperwork to process and after they could live and work in Mexico for one year. One family pulled two children through the gate, and a pregnant woman followed. Frustrated and hot, the rest of the line peeled off and walked back to the Guatemala border office. From over the bridge's fence a group of young men urged them to join a river crossing.

People started dispersing, but Miguel was nowhere to be found. He had taken Glenda’s backpack, a pair of rainbow sneakers dangling off the side, to lighten her load.

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Salvadoran migrants crowd insider a trailer truck that offered a ride toward to the Guatemalan border.

Jackelin pulled on a sunhat and walked toward the Mexico side, but there were only groups of people trudging back. They walked out of the border gate and back toward the plaza where they’d slept.

“I see him!” Glenda pointed toward a flower bed where Miguel was perched on the concrete ledge. He jumped up and grabbed them in a hug. He’d tried to find them, he said, but the Guatemalan police hadn’t let him past the gate. “Yeah right you were looking for us,” Jackelin said, annoyed and flushed from her walk across the bridge. He pointed at an older woman who'd been sitting next to him. “I was just telling her my plan was to cross the river and then throw myself into immigration because without you guys I wouldn’t continue."

At an orange juice stand they ordered three glasses and discussed the next move. If they took the visas Mexico was offering and went to a shelter they’d be separated by gender. Hiring a boat would cost nearly $4 per person. The group was crossing the river on foot, but that posed a problem: “I don’t know how to swim,” Miguel confessed.

“You can’t swim?” Glenda asked.

“Well, not fast. And there’s a current.”

“It’s not that wide.”

“It’s deep,” Miguel replied. They’re gonna help you guys cross—not me.”

As they debated, clusters of people resting in the plaza stood up and started moving. Guatemalan shopkeepers stepped into doorways to watch the sudden exodus. Hundreds of people joined until the streets were full. “Those who don’t have plastic bags, buy plastic bags!” someone shouted. “I’m a fish, I’m a fish!” another cried.

Miguel pulled out a laminated map that traced possible routes through Mexico to the United States—the line going toward Texas was 1,500 miles, others stretched more than 2,000 miles west to California. Ahead of them was a journey of more than a month, most of it on foot. At the end was a heavily guarded border with thousands of troops ordered to stop them.

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Central American migrants, part of the first caravan that left from Honduras in mid-October, catch a ride in the back of a trailer truck as they pass near the village of Los Corazones, in Oaxaca, Mexico.

“Do you think they’re going to able to catch all these people at once?” Jackelin wondered aloud. She jumped off the path to take a video of the exodus, which had now passed town and reached a narrow foot path. Fields of banana trees stretched to the river on the right, and a grassy decline into scattered houses on the other. She stepped back into line and Glenda took out her phone to snap a group selfie. The three of them beamed.

Then the road opened and the river stretched across their path. They hopped off the muddy embankment into knee-deep water. A current pushed toward the other bridge and the border crossing they’d left. Glenda and Miguel held hands and Jackelin grabbed their shoulders as they waded into deeper water. On the other side a police siren wailed, and they vanished into a mass of bobbing trash bags and balanced toddlers. When they climbing ashore in Mexico the police car pulled away and 1,500 people started walking north to the next stop, 8 hours away.