When word first reached Americans of the migrant “caravans” setting out from Central America, the president of Honduras told Vice President Mike Pence that key organizational support for the caravans was coming from leftist groups in Honduras, and that the caravans were being financed by Venezuela.
.@costareports asks @VP Mike Pence about @realDonaldTrump’s claim that unknown Middle Easterners had infiltrated the migrant caravan heading to the U.S. border. “It’s inconceivable that there are not people of Middle Eastern descent,” Pence said. pic.twitter.com/7CRmyggfHG
— Washington Post Live (@postlive) October 23, 2018
At the time, in late October, I discussed the likelihood that the actual money was coming from outside Venezuela and being funneled through the Maduro regime there. In particular – besides activist backing such as that of George Soros – foreign sponsors of a migrant surge in the Americas might include Russia and Iran.
Any such sponsored surges would target the United States, and more generally, the stability of the entire hemisphere. Russia and Iran are both highly motivated to promote deterioration of America’s strategic stability.
I stressed then, and continue to stress, that an outside power would be taking advantage of a set of conditions that power could not singlehandedly cause. Local motivations must be there. But such conditions are there to be exploited.
The model of mass migration on foot has now been established in the Eastern hemisphere, between the Middle East, Africa, and Europe. It has been on people’s TV screens and social-media feeds for half a decade, and doesn’t have to be explained or advertised to them. There are certainly people in Central America who could spontaneously think it was a good idea over here, without being baited into it by agents of Russia or Iran.
There has also, of course, been a long history of people from parts of Latin America trying to get into the U.S. illegally. Staging “caravans” bent on breaching and invalidating borders is a different thing – a political move against the United States – but it takes advantage of a real desire by some people to get into the country for their own reasons.
However, the exceptional size and organization of what we’re seeing in the fall of 2018 are beyond any group effort ever mounted before. State sponsorship would help explain how an enterprise of such scope is being brought off. It is merely prudent to keep an eye out for the possibility that the effort has such backing. In fact, it would be imprudent – indeed, quite stupid – to insist that there can’t possibly be any state sponsorship behind the caravans.
With that in mind, I’m embedding a video below in which Mexican journalist Alex Backman – a Mexican of Swiss descent – presents the exchange from an interview in Tijuana at the U.S.-Mexico border on 22 November with a caravan organizer. It’s conducted in Spanish by a reporter for Noticieros Televisa, and a show called En Punto (On Point) featuring anchor Denise Maerker. (H/t: @dashman76; see here too)
I strongly recommend watching the whole video. But to see the portion you’ll be most interested in, you can start watching at the 13:20 mark. Backman has supplied captions in English.
Caravan spokesman: Right now, we want to enter peacefully. We want to reach an agreement with Trump. Because if not – that day – when we were in Guatemala… [the spokesman leaves it hanging; as Backman says, he is alluding to the day when they crashed a border gate between Guatemala and Mexico]
Reporter: He [Trump] already made it clear and he will not let them enter.
Spokesman: Well, yes, he made it clear… Like I said, he cannot come against us… he cannot fire against us. Because I believe that tomorrow, a really strong nation is coming to support us.
Reporter: May I ask, what country.
Spokesman: Russia is coming. They are coming. I have their phone number, from them in Chile. I just called them and I told them what was going on.
Reporter: What is your name?
Spokesman: I cannot give you my name. I cannot give it to you. I haven’t given it to anyone. I always deny my name.
Obviously, there is no proving that what the caravan spokesman says is valid. As evidence, it is no shakier than evidence often is, for either intelligence or law enforcement leads. But it’s just one data point.
We don’t hear from the young man what he means by “Russia is coming.” It appears obvious that he doesn’t mean Russia is coming with any kind of conventional force. He may mean support is coming in the form of sponsored special operators in plainclothes (like Cubans, who operate through much of Central America). He may be referring to something less organized, or merely to support like organizing tools, such as communications devices.
He seems, at the least, to be referring to something specific. As for the allusion to Chile, although a Chilean connection wouldn’t be the first suspicion in anyone’s mind, putting Russian coordinators in Chile, or running their communications through Chile, would be a way of minimizing their profile against U.S. surveillance. Chile is not where we’d be looking for them.
None of that is to argue that what the spokesman says must be valid. It’s to point out that nothing indicates it’s invalid on its face either. People with political motivations will leap on this one way or the other, dismissing it out of hand or calling it proof of Russia’s involvement. Neither is the right response; a good intelligence analyst would keep it in the data-box and look for corroboration.
Interestingly, the only way to see the Noticieros Televisa video now is to view it through Alex Backman’s video. I found the tweet that contained the video on Twitter (you can see by the verbiage that it’s the tweet Backman has pulled up on his laptop):
Al menos 300 migrantes son contenidos por policías federales cuando trataban de llegar a la garita San Ysidro, desde Tijuana. De lado estadunidense, agentes fronterizos cierran el paso a centroamericanos. #EnPunto con @DeniseMaerker. Mira la nota completa, https://t.co/UD58HV0RnX pic.twitter.com/aS8hnfYuIP
— Noticieros Televisa (@NTelevisa_com) November 23, 2018
But the video doesn’t play. (It didn’t for me; I assume it won’t even though the tweet, for now, remains posted).
As you can see, the video was tweeted on 22 November. Backman published his video on 23 November.
The initial portion of his video is worthwhile, in part for overall context, and in part for what he says about Mexico’s emerging policy stance on migrants. That stance is going to have a profound impact on the U.S. with the inauguration of the new president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador (or AMLO, as he is colloquially referred to in Mexico).
AMLO, a socialist, has stated categorically on multiple occasions that migrants have an overriding right to enter the United States at will. He applies this to both Mexicans and third-country nationals who may come through Mexico.
As Alex Backman discusses in the very beginning of his video, Mexico has amended the national constitution recently to align it with the terms of the UN Global Compact on Migration that was agreed to in July 2018. (The U.S. withdrew from the negotiations on the pact before this agreement, and is not a party to it. A number of other nations are now considering backing out of it.)
The amendments that made the changes to the Mexican constitution were from 2011 and 2016 (for the latter, see the comments here).
Backman expresses concern about being silenced as a journalist if he doesn’t use approved language to speak about migrants and migration. His words suggest he is already under pressure from the authorities to use only approved terminology. This post at Rebel Media illuminates what he’s talking about. The UN global compact contains within it provisions for, precisely, shutting down unapproved speech about migrant issues. If you commit to the pact, you commit your nation to silencing your people’s independent voices.
The text of the pact is here. Backman’s comments are important because they mean not only that López Obrador may make the U.S. job harder at the border (at least at first), by refusing to discourage any migrant passage through Mexico, but that it could well be harder to get independent information about what’s going on. We’ll have to see what happens; but it’s not out of the realm of possibility that anyone broadcasting or reporting from Mexico will be constrained to repeat only misleading bromides about migrant situations. Europe has been experiencing that Orwellian condition for some time.
(Backman also mentions during the video that it’s becoming harder for him to learn how many caravans there are, and how many migrants are involved — because the organizers are making an effort to break the caravan profile up and move in greater secrecy, or at least with less fanfare.)
How that could affect U.S. and Mexican security cooperation at an official level is just one of the questions that remain to be answered. We can still hope that none of these portents will bring the worst. But I also hope more and more people are seeing how foolish it would be to complacently assume the worst can’t happen.