When hundreds of migrants from Central America waded across a river from Guatemala into Mexico on Monday, chaos broke out. And for Saury Vallecilla Ortega, a single mother of four, a nightmare ensued.
For more than a day, she was separated from her 5-year-old daughter, Andrea, and feared for the worst.
Vallecilla and her children, ages 5 to 16, fled Honduras with hopes shared by many Central Americans. “I just want an opportunity for my children,” she said. “I want them to have an education, a home, and I want to make money so they never go hungry — things we need badly in Honduras.”
Finances and education were not the only reasons for leaving. Vallecilla also worries for the family’s safety in Honduras, which is grappling with one of the world’s highest rates of violent crime.
“I worked in a factory, and on days we got paid, guys would often follow me home and rob me. I’d get home scared and with no way to feed my kids,” she said. “We mothers go out to work and don’t know if we’ll make it back home to our children.”
A scramble across the river
Fleeing north seemed to be their only option. A week ago, Vallecilla and her children joined up with thousands of other migrants in a loosely organized caravan and made their way — on foot and hitching rides on the highway — through Guatemala.
On Monday morning, the caravan approached the Guatemalan side of a bridge at the Suchiate River, which runs along the Mexican border. They read aloud a letter asking the Mexican government to let them continue their journey to the U.S. Mexican migration officials said they couldn’t pass and should hand themselves over to process immigration or asylum claims to be in Mexico.
But more than 1,000 migrants from the caravan who had handed themselves in days before would likely be deported, Mexico’s National Migration Institute said.
Rather than cross the bridge, Vallecilla, her children and hundreds more migrants lwalked down to the Suchiate and waded across the river, which was running low.
On the Mexican side, hundreds of National Guard troops in riot gear were waiting.
The scattered migrants tried to run around them, but the troops chased them down. Using tear gas and riot shields, the troops pushed the migrants back toward the river. Migrants threw rocks and sticks. Troops threw rocks back. Parents shielded their children and ran.
Amid the chaos, Vallecilla and her children managed to get around the National Guard. Along with almost 100 other migrants, they started walking north on a small highway.
“It was so hot and I was sick from the heat, so a man [another migrant] offered to carry my daughter” — 5-year-old Andrea, she said. It was a relief for Vallecilla.
They walked north, almost 4 miles, she estimates.
“And then I turned around and there were all these police coming at us,” she said. Mexican federal police, the army and migration agents chased them down. The panicked migrants scattered.
“The guy [with my daughter] ran and I ran after him,” she said. “But then I looked and [Mexican migration] agents had grabbed my other three children. I was yelling at the guy [with Andrea] to stop.”
A hand grabbed Vallecilla’s arm — it was another migration agent.
“I screamed, ‘Please, let me go, that’s my daughter there,’ ” she said. “She was just right there, still close to me. But he wouldn’t let me go.”
The man carrying Andrea was among the many migrants who disappeared into the forest. Vallecilla believes the man ran out of fear of being detained, not in an attempt to take her daughter.
Dozens of detained migrants were loaded onto buses to a detention center. Vallecilla was the last taken away. “Please, please help me find my baby,” she sobbed.
Migration agents pulled the inconsolable mother into a van, taking her and three of her children to the local prosecutor’s office.
On Tuesday morning, Vallecilla sent NPR voice messages.
“I just need someone to help me find my baby. [The authorities] are not helping me,” she said. “I don’t want my daughter to be just another statistic of disappeared children. … I feel like I’m going to die.”
Late Tuesday, Vallecila contacted NPR to say she had been reunited with Andrea, who was unharmed.
This week’s caravan was one of the latest to try to pass through Mexico to the U.S. in recent years. They have drawn wide attention, prompting the Trump administration to seek stricter U.S. asylum rules and to pressure Mexico and its neighbors to toughen up their own immigration enforcement.
In June 2019, Trump threatened to impose punishing tariffs on Mexico if it didn’t do more to stop migrants. The following month, Mexico detained the highest number of migrants it had in more than a decade. Mexico detained 151,547 Central American migrants from January to November 2019, according to the latest data available from the Mexican government, compared with 131,445 in all of 2018.
The Mexican government appeared to work harder this time to stop the caravan. In 2018, although Mexican authorities did not let the caravan through en masse, many migrants in the group sneaked across the Suchiate River and regrouped to continue their march through Mexico toward the U.S.
Mexican officials repeatedly said they would not let this latest caravan in.
“There will be special operations and, of course, migration agents,” Interior Secretary Olga Sánchez Cordero told reporters last week, as the caravan was heading toward Mexico.
On Tuesday, the migration agency said the country has deported 244 migrants to Honduras from this week’s caravan. The number includes those who handed themselves in or those who were detained by force.
The government faced public backlash, and some support, after photos and videos circulated on social media of the National Guard repelling migrants, including women and children, sometimes violently, on Monday. But the government defended its position.
“The National Guard acted according to orders,” said Foreign Secretary Marcelo Ebrard. Part of the caravan “tried to enter the country by force,” he said, and “a tragedy was avoided,” with no injuries.
He added, “Mexico has one of the most generous stances in the world toward migrants who come to our country,” remarking that few other countries “offer refuge or temporary work.”
For Vallecilla, at least part of the nightmare is over, but she is afraid about what could happen next.
“I want refuge in Mexico, but they say they’re going to send us back to Honduras,” she told NPR in a text message Tuesday. She has not been in touch since.
James Fredrick reported in Ciudad Hidalgo, Mexico. Carrie Kahn contributed reporting from Mexico City.