TIJUANA, Mexico — Their black T-shirts and furtive glances gave them away.
Eschewing introductions, the strangers — clued in to the clandestine meeting via a WhatsApp chat and directed to color-coordinate their outfits — stood in a circle near a movie theater in a strip mall, riffing on ways to stop the swell of migrants arriving at this border city.
"Let’s go make sure they don’t get permission to stay, and then let the witch hunt begin,” Alejandra Garcia told the small crowd.
Over the next hour, with the sky already jet-black, the group grew to 11 people, including a woman pushing a stroller; several housewives; and a factory worker earning minimum wage. They lowered their voices when describing the bulk of migrants traveling with the caravan as “ingrates” and “animals,” but raised their voices to criticize the Mexican government for having escorted the caravan as it moved through the country.
They are a small part of the growing backlash to the caravan, taking root in WhatsApp groups and Facebook pages. As the caravan approaches, their incendiary rhetoric increases, with members calling for the group’s deportation — or worse. And with a long wait ahead of the migrants, the odds of a confrontation rise with every angry message sent.
Afterward, several in the group went to Playas, a borough in western Tijuana where another anti-caravan contingent was trying to forcefully evict migrants. The group taunted the Central Americans, chanting “stop coming!” and singing the Mexican anthem. Police had to step in between the two groups.
“I understand Trump. I don’t love him but I know what it’s like to have to defend your country,” Garcia, 52, told BuzzFeed News.
For weeks, the growing presence of troops on the US border had worried members of the migrant caravan, which became a major rallying cry for President Donald Trump's nationalist base and an unprecedented diplomatic and logistical challenge for the Mexican government. Migrants face a new threat: residents of Tijuana — the final stop on their 2,700-mile-long journey — who are organizing protests against the caravan and threatening them, or anyone who supports them, with violence.
Several Facebook and WhatsApp groups advocating for the caravan's deportation have sprung up in the month since the migrants set out from Honduras, underscoring escalating anti-immigrant sentiment in northern Mexico. The violent language used against Central Americans in these groups echoes that used by Trump supporters in the US, referring to the caravan as an "invasion" and issuing a call to arms in defense of borders.
The pushback against the caravan in Tijuana has brought long-standing racism toward Central Americans neighbors to the surface, highlighting the incongruous attitude of Mexicans who demand better treatment in the US while discriminating against — and often victimizing — migrants who move north through the country.
Inside the WhatsApp chat, people have felt free to share their unfiltered views:
"These people are a Cancer that signals the end of Mexico."
"I'm asking the men here to defend their women and children... Since the majority of Central Americans who've arrived are men, violent thefts will start any moment now."
"Plagues are confronted with venom. And [bullets] are the venom here. Hondurans are equal to gonorrhea."
Other messages in a WhatsApp group called "Citizen’s Blockade" — which BuzzFeed News had access to after joining a related, closed Facebook page — included suggestions to deliver pizza and hamburgers filled with pesticide to migrants, and a call to burn down one of the biggest shelters in the city. The group has more than 250 participants.
For sore-footed migrants who have been walking or hitchhiking, the threats from Tijuana residents add injury to insult after days of hardening measures by US authorities to impede their entry, including closing down lanes at several ports of entry and hanging razor wire on border fences.
The caravan grew from about 500 to over 7,000 people within days of its mid-October departure. Guatemalans and Salvadorans joined the group as it made its way north, fleeing stagnant economies and gang violence, both of which have become a staple in the region. At least three more caravans have formed and followed, underscoring a shift in regional migratory trends — a response to high smuggler fees and the risk of theft, extortion, rape, and homicide along the trail.
The original caravan has encountered violence from Mexican authorities — including tear gas from police as the group tried to tear down the gate at the Guatemalan border — but also countless examples of goodwill from Mexicans who have donated clothes, cooked and distributed tamales and tortas, and offered rides in their cars and trucks to scores of strangers.
But as the caravan makes its final approach to the US border, this altruism appears to have run dry.
A Facebook group called “Tijuana Against the Migrant Caravan,” which has more than 6,700 members, posted a warning for newcomers: "People who publish messages calling members xenophobic, don't understand the purpose of this group, and they will be removed and blocked," one of the administrators wrote this week.
Members posted photographs identifying individual migrants and a video of the confrontation that took place Wednesday night near at Playas.
Detentions and deportations of Central Americans in Mexico have increased dramatically since 2014, after a large wave of undocumented minors entered the US, prompting former president Barack Obama’s administration to characterize the situation at the border as a humanitarian crisis.
Under pressure from the Trump administration to stop the caravan, Mexican authorities have processed more than 2,900 refugee requests since the group first entered Mexico on Oct. 19. President Enrique Peña Nieto has also offered migrants temporary jobs, though many members of the caravan, distrustful of Mexican authorities, have rejected the program.
Migrants will likely have to wait for weeks in Tijuana to present their asylum cases to US immigration authorities. There are already dozens of people waiting on the bridge, a small portion of the 800 who've already arrived, and only a handful of people are processed each day. As many as 5,000 migrants are expected to make it to Tijuana in the coming days, with their fate in the city more uncertain than ever.
Anti-caravan groups announced a protest on Sunday and said they expect at least 3,000 people to attend. But with the big event still three days away, the pace of the messages increased, and the ire deepened.
“I feel like leaving some migrants like strainers,” one member of Citizen’s Blockade said in a voice note to the group while others suggested assembling Molotov cocktails and getting bats ready Wednesday night. “Or give them poisoned food.”
Another gave a warning: Don’t engage the migrants physically. “They are carrying many diseases in their blood — HIV, tuberculosis — and it’s not convenient for Tijuanenses, for Mexicans, to be fighting with those scourges.”
At the strip mall, the black-clad group exchanged rumors — a teenager had been killed by a group of migrants nearby, and the migrants had yelled “Mexicans are dogs!” on their way into the country — and discussed their options. The most dire of them: Leave Tijuana.
“I don’t have grandchildren yet but when I do,” said Garcia, “I don’t want them to grow up around these kinds of people.”