The flier began circulating on social media in Honduras this month, showing a lone migrant sketched against a bright red backdrop. It was a call to join a caravan, the work of leftist activists and politicians who had helped lead migrants north in the past. But they also tossed a political spark into the mix, blaming their right-wing government for the exodus: “The violence and poverty is expelling us.”
But they never expected it to ignite an international firestorm. And with the midterm elections in the United States only weeks away, President Trump was eager to change the script.
The caravan gave him a new, politically advantageous story to tell. Stoking American anxieties about immigration had worked well as a cornerstone of his 2016 campaign. The president’s top aides, including Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen and the White House chief of staff, John F. Kelly, began briefing the president on the caravan’s progress the week before last, senior White House officials said.
What began as a domestic political dispute in Honduras — an effort to undermine newly re-elected President Juan Orlando Hernández and to call attention to the plight of migrants — quickly became an international row, a source of embarrassment in Honduras, consternation across the region, and political opportunism in the United States.
Initially planned as a modest caravan of a few hundred people, it grew quickly to about 7,000 as desperation, local media coverage and a swirl of domestic and US politics combined to transform it into the largest movement of migrants north through Mexico in recent history. Even those who helped spur the mass movement never imagined it would expand so much, so fast.
For leftist politicians the caravan offered a perfect way to encourage migrants to travel safely in a large group — and attack the government at the same time.
After Honduras’s divisive presidential election in November, which the Organization of American States found so problematic that it called for a new vote, people took to the streets in deadly protests against what they saw as a fraudulent vote count.
Despite the controversy, the Trump administration gave its official support to Mr. Hernández, a loyal ally who cooperated with Americans during his first term on issues like stopping the flow of drugs and migrants toward the border. With that, Mr. Hernández took office, but he remained a polarizing figure accused of corruption and amassing too much power.
Determined to denounce Mr. Hernández’s administration and support the migrants, members of the opposition started promoting the caravan as an example of what happens when a government fails its people. In Tegucigalpa, the capital, a prominent member of the opposition went to the Mexican Embassy and threatened to send out multiple caravans as long as the situation in Honduras remained the same, according to two senior Mexican officials.
“This time it will be so big that when they see everyone walking, they should ask, ‘Where are they coming from and who is responsible for so many people leaving Honduras?’” said Mr. Redondo in a Facebook post on Oct. 5 in which he shared the caravan poster. “This is a consequence of corruption, lack of security, impunity; those responsible are the corrupt and corrupters of the national party.”
On that score, the government’s opponents were successful. Mr. Trump demanded that Mr. Hernández stop the caravan, though by then the migrants were already in Guatemala, and it was unclear what Mr. Hernández could do. Still, Mr. Trump threatened to cut off aid to the country if the caravan was not turned around.
The political fallout from the caravan has been disastrous for Honduras. But for Trump and Republicans welcomed the pivot of Americans’ attention away from the Khashoggi killing to a topic that has long gained traction with the president's political base.