As caravan moves on, a leader is left behind
Mujica says his goal is safer trek for migrants
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 United States 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 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, and embarked on a 2,000mile journey toward the United States.
Mujica was arrested by Mexican federal police Oct. 18 as he participated in a march intended to welcome the thousands of Central American migrants gathered on the Guatemalan side of the river and 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 aimed more at racking up votes in the November midterm elections than at 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 United States.
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 United States 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 United States 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 2017, 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.
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 participating in a march in Ciudad Hidalgo to demonstrate “solidarity” with the thousands of migrants massing 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 United States, 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 institute, 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. Mujica said that after he was arrested by federal police, 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 been released from jail.
Instead of releasing him, 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.”
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.
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.”
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.
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,” he said. “No one is getting more political mileage out of this than Donald Trump and the Republicans.”
Mujica said increasing numbers of migrants, among them parents with children, are choosing to travel in large groups for safety in hopes of reaching the United States 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.”
Irineo Mujica, a coordinator of the migrant caravan, remains stuck in Tapachula, a small city in southern Mexico, while thousands of Central American migrants inch closer to the United States.