Anabel Flores had been thinking of leaving El Salvador since March, when a local thug barged into her house and threatened her son.
But given the $10,000 price tag for a coyote to guide them north, and the ever-present threat of kidnapping or sexual assault on the way, the 40-year-old mother of four didn’t see how migrating would be possible – until last week.
Watching the news one night, she saw a report that a caravan of migrants would soon be leaving the Salvadoran capital. Hoping that there would be strength in numbers, she decided this was her chance to head for the US with her two youngest sons, Randy, 17, and Danilo.
“The situation is really ugly here, so we’ve decided to leave,” said Flores early on Wednesday morning in a plaza in downtown San Salvador where she was waiting with a few hundred would-be migrants as they prepared to start their long journey. A larger group of about 700 had set out for the Guatemalan border before she arrived.
Her two sons are prime age for recruitment by the maras which dominate their neighboorhood: neither wants to join up, but neither feels able to defy the gang members. “I’m scared just to go to the store,” said Randy.
Anabel and her sons are some of the growing numberS of Central Americans who are banding together to head to the US and Mexico.
Human rights organizations have occasionally organized caravans within Mexico before to raise awareness of their cause, but the mass movements from Central America appear to have begun when several thousand people left the Honduran city of San Pedro Sula on 12 October.
Since then, at least one another caravan has left from Honduras and three have set out from El Salvador. “Going alone is risky,” said Carlos Humberto Alfaro, 38, who was also waiting to leave. “But a caravan is safer.”
Donald Trump and his Republican allies have accused political groups in the US and Latin America of coordinating the caravans to undermine his government before the midterm elections on 6 November. But there is no evidence to support this.
Instead, the groups appear to have been organized by ordinary citizens in El Salvador through Facebook groups and WhatsApp chat groups.
The groups have overturned migrants’ normal behavior: instead of seeking to move without being seen – by authorities or criminals – they are hoping that traveling in the open will keep them safe.
The spate of caravans doesn’t necessarily mean that more people are migrating – they are just more visible, said Edgar Vallecillos of the Scalabrini International Migration Network.
“It’s just another way of migrating: people have always gone individually or in families,” he said.
“Central America – particularly Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador – have been in a crisis, but that crisis has been invisible,” said Patricia Montes, director of Centro Presente, an organization that works with Central American migrants in Boston.
The crisis started in the 1980s, she said, when the countries experienced brutal civil wars and destabilizing US intervention. Since then, migration has been driven by violence, poverty and climate change.
“The caravan is a new expression of this same migratory phenomenon,” she said.
Trump has deployed troops on the southern border and threatened to cut aid payments. Mexican and Guatemalan have clashed with migrants trying to cross the border between the two countries, killing at least two.
And some of the travelers are well aware of the hostility the caravans have provoked – but they feel they have no choice.
“Seeing so many negative stories can discourage a person,” said Alfaro, adding that he had been following the caravan’s progress on television news and social media. “But at the same time, the situation forces a person to leave.” Alfaro makes $10 a day doing sporadic construction work, but it’s not enough to feed his son, he said.
Nearly 165,000 migrants from Central America’s northern triangle were apprehended crossing into the US last year – 47,900 from Honduras, 50,011 from El Salvador and 66,807 from Guatemala.
Many are refugees fleeing for their lives. Violence has been decreasing in El Salvador since 2015, but the country still has one of the highest homicide rates in the world with nearly 4,000 murders in 2017.
The country also has one of the highest rates of internal displacement, with 296,000 Salvadorans on the run within the country’s borders. But moving towns doesn’t keep them safe: in a country roughly the size of Massachusetts, Salvadorans are never more than a few hours’ drives from whoever was threatening them.
As reporters snapped photos of the migrants early on Wednesday morning, some concealed their faces, scared of being identified by whoever they were fleeing.
“We don’t know if we’ll make it or be turned back,” said one 17-year-old girl sitting hunched on the fringes of the group with her half-brother of the same age.
She seemed terrified: her eyes scanned the plaza as she spoke, and didn’t want to say what exactly had prompted them to flee.
But despite her fear, leaving home was not an easy choice: there is no guarantee they will reach their final destination unscathed.
“It does make you scared, but you have to do it when you have no other options,” she said. “Maybe with the caravan we have a chance of making it there alive.”