MEXICO CITY – Thousands of exhausted migrants from the Central American caravan trudged along the highways to Mexico City on Monday, where officials were preparing a sports stadium to house them as they tried to reach the US border hundreds of miles away.
The first wave of more than 500 migrants spent Sunday night on concrete benches at the Jesus Martinez Stadium, where they were served hot meals, as the authorities were ready to receive up to 5,000 migrants from the lead caravan and several hundreds of miles behind. Nashieli Ramirez, ombudsman of the city's Human Rights Commission, said the migrants could stay in the stadium for as long as necessary.
"We have the humanitarian aid room," Ramirez said.
With a thundering voice late on Sunday in a gym in Cordoba, in the Gulf state of Veracruz, hundreds of the estimated 4,000 migrants in the main caravan voted for a strike in the capital to leave a part of the country that has long been treacherous for migrants who try to get into the United States. Cordoba is on the shortest route 286 kilometers from Mexico City. This would be the group's longest day trip since they started more than three weeks ago.
However, the group encountered obstacles on Monday. Truck trucks refused to drive the migrants as they stomped for miles across the freeway, feeling the colder weather in central Mexico. At a toll booth near Fortin, Veracruz, Rafael Leyva, an unemployed shoemaker from Honduras, spent more than 45 minutes with a few hundreds of others without finding a ride.
"In Chiapas and Oaxaca, people are helping more," Leyva mused, pointing to the southern states of Mexico that the group had already crossed, often stopping pickup trucks to offer rides.
Migrants saw themselves grouped in front of tractor trailers, forcing the big rigs to stop so other migrants could climb aboard.
This improvised ride is worrying, with dozens moving on vehicles, leaving behind some. And the police force the migrants out of the vehicles when the drivers complain.
Cesar Rodas, 24, had spent 24 days pushing a friend's wheelchair along with the caravan through three countries. But he could not lift his friend and chair onto a lorry bed crammed with 150 migrants. Rodas attempted to bring Sergio Cazares, a 40-year-old paraplegic from Honduras, to the US for an operation he hopes Cazares will let him go again.
Most of the tired caravan participants camp on Sunday in Cordoba, a colonial town in the Veracruz Sugar Belt. From Veracruz, a state where hundreds of migrants had disappeared in recent years, they wanted to move to Mexico City. They were victims of kidnappers who demanded ransom payments. They are still more than 600 miles from the US border.
They hope to regroup in the Mexican capital to seek medical help and rest while waiting for the latecomers. The caravan has found strength in its numbers to the north, and the inhabitants of the city came to offer food, water, fresh clothes and spare shoes.
It is unclear on which part of the US border the caravan will ultimately aim or how many of them can flake off by itself. Several hundred have moved to downtown Puebla, while others have been streamed on Monday in Mexico City. Some stopped at the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe, a major pilgrimage site in the capital, to thank the Virgin Mary for watching over her during the journey.
Many of the migrants said they were convinced that traveling together was their best hope for reaching the US. Migrants generally say they are fleeing poverty, gang violence and political instability, especially in the Central American countries of Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador and Nicaragua.
Yuri Juarez, 42, says he believes there is a "very small" chance of his being granted asylum in the US. However, in Villanueva, Guatemala, he had no opportunity to work at home. There he closed his internet cafe after being blackmailed by members of the group. Then he robbed his customers and finally stole his computer.
Mexico faces the unprecedented situation that three migrant caravans run over 500 kilometers of highway in the states of Chiapas, Oaxaca and Veracruz. The largest group was followed by about 1,000 who left Guatemala last week and a second group of about the same size that waded across the Suchiate River on Friday.
The Mexican Ministry of Interior estimated over the weekend that over 5,000 migrants are moving across the caravans or in smaller groups across southern Mexico. The ministry said that in recent weeks, 2,793 migrants have applied for refugee status in Mexico, and around 500 have asked for support to return to their home countries.
President Donald Trump has ordered US troops in response to the caravans to the Mexican border. More than 7,000 active troops are planned for use in Texas, Arizona and California. Trump plans to sign an order that would allow large-scale migrants to cross the southern border and lock anyone who was illegally caught seeking asylum.