Mexican authorities have arrested two organizers of last spring’s large Central American caravan that drew intense ire from the Trump administration, for allegedly transporting immigrants in exchange for money.
Irineo Mujica, the director of Pueblo Sin Fronteras, was arrested Wednesday in the Mexican state of Sonora, and Cristóbal Sánchez, the founder of Migrant Culture Collective, was arrested at his home by plainclothes officers.
In a statement, Mexican prosecutors said two Honduran immigrants in April and May told authorities that Mujica and Sánchez promised to bring them into Mexico illegally, take them to the northern border, and smuggle them into the United States in exchange for money.
Mujica is accused of transporting immigrants, including children, while Sánchez is accused of helping people enter Mexico without legal documentation.
The arrests come as the US intensifies pressure on Mexico to stop the surge of immigrants, many from Central America, from arriving at the southern border.
Pueblo Sin Fronteras denounced the arrests as a politically motivated move from the Mexican government to appease the Trump administration.
"The Mexican government has detained them to present them as trophies before the United States government," the organization said in a statement. "Despite assurances from the Mexican government that tells us that Mexico makes its own migration policy, this series of events makes it clear that's not the case."
The immigrant rights group pointed out the arrests occurred on the same day Mexico's secretary of state met with Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
The detention, the group said, was made by, "a Mexican government that promised to defend human rights, but in reality has bent under pressure from the anti-immigrant government of the US."
In a statement, several human rights organizations denounced the arrests and said it criminalized immigrant rights defenders. The groups said the arrests have taken place under political and economic pressure from the US government against Mexico in order to stop Central American migration.
“This is an arbitrary and illegal act, and a representation against the important work of defending the human rights of the migrant and great efforts to generate a more just and less violent Mexico,” Pueblo Sin Fronteras said.
Mujica, who holds dual US–Mexican citizenship, has opened and operated migrant shelters in Mexico. In 2008, he helped organize a Holy Week caravan in southern Mexico.
Caravans were first organized to highlight the plight of immigrants making the perilous journey through Mexico. The gatherings grew in size as more would-be immigrants saw them as a way to travel through Mexico while avoiding immigration checkpoints and routes that often resulted in falling prey to criminals.
In 2017, Pueblo Sin Fronteras organized the first caravan that traveled through Mexico to the US border. It was followed by another caravan in spring 2018 that started in Tapachula, the southern Mexico city on the Guatemala border, that attracted up to 1,500 people and the fury of the Trump administration. Days after it took off, President Trump demanded Mexican officials stop the caravan and ordered National Guard troops to the southwest border.
The US and Mexico have often referred to caravan organizers as human smugglers. In February, Mexico’s interior secretary, Olga Sánchez Cordero, said members of Pueblo Sin Fronteras are among those the government has identified in promoting and organizing caravans and suggested that some may be involved in human smuggling.
Last October, when another caravan began, this time from within Central America, a fake Facebook account claiming to be Bartolo Fuentes, a Honduran activist, journalist, and former lawmaker, said Pueblo Sin Fronteras was organizing in an apparent bid to increase the number of participants.
But Pueblo Sin Fronteras was not involved and opposed it over fears that the caravan would be used to drive an anti-immigrant agenda in the lead-up to the US midterm elections in November. A fear that turned into a reality.
Ultimately, while Pueblo Sin Fronteras didn’t organize the caravan, it linked up with the group once it entered Mexico. Various members of the binational organization accompanied the group, offering their expertise, but maintained they were not organizers.
It was during that time, in October, that Mujica was detained by authorities in the Mexican city of Ciudad Hidalgo at a march in support of the Central Americans heading toward the Mexican border. He was later released.