Is Central American migrant caravan a security threat?

Yemeli ORTEGA, with Joshua Howat BERGER in Mexico City
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Migrants are traveling together to protect themselves from the dangers of the journey across Mexico

Migrants are traveling together to protect themselves from the dangers of the journey across Mexico (AFP Photo/ALFREDO ESTRELLA)

Tepic (Mexico) (AFP) - Since the US midterm elections, President Donald Trump has barely mentioned the "hardened criminals" he warned were about to "assault" the United States from a Central American migrant caravan.

But the caravan is still trekking toward the US-Mexican border -- some 1,800 kilometers (1,100 miles) from where it was Tuesday -- and campaign-trail vitriol aside, the question lingers: is it a possible security threat?

When he hears the American president talk about all the "gang members" in the caravan, Bayron Salinas, a 24-year-old mechanic from Honduras, shakes his head: "The gangs are what we're running from," he says.

Sniffling and coughing in the chill of a winter evening in central Mexico, his one-year-old son in his arms, the slightly-built Salinas does not look much like Trump's image of an "invasion" by "thugs" and "very bad people."

Like most of the 5,000 migrants walking and hitch-hiking across Mexico, many of them in families, Salinas says he and his wife, Isamar, just want to raise their baby out of poverty and away from the street gangs that rule their turf with brutal violence in his home country.

"For the most part these are asylum-seeking families and adults, fleeing violence and threats and tough conditions and are simply seeking a place of safety," says Royce Bernstein Murray of the American Immigration Council, a Washington think tank.

- 'Unknown Middle Easterners' -

Yet it is hard to completely dismiss security fears about masses of people crossing international borders.

One raw wound highlights the stakes in the migration debate: the November 2015 Paris attacks.

Three years ago, Islamic State jihadists killed 130 people in a series of coordinated suicide bombings and mass shootings in the French capital. Most of the attackers had snuck into Europe in the flow of migrants and refugees fleeing Syria.

Trump's rhetoric on the migrant caravan has echoed the language of European anti-immigration hardliners who raged against the Syrian exodus.

But there is zero evidence that Islamist terrorists are traveling in the migrant caravan.

And even Trump admitted there was "no proof" for one of his most alarmist tweets, in which he said "unknown Middle Easterners" were mixed in with the group.

- ... and MS-13 -

More frequently, Trump has asserted that the caravan contains members of gangs such as MS-13, whose violence has fueled some of the world's highest murder rates in Central America's "Northern Triangle:" El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras.

Migration experts, security analysts and even migrants themselves say it is possible a small number of gang members or other criminals are in the caravan.

Some migrants told AFP they were aware of small groups of young men in the caravan who took drugs and stole things -- but not the large-scale criminal presence Trump decries.

"If we realize there's a thief in the group, we hit him -- hard. No thief who's smart would hang around here," says Denis Alberto de la Cruz, 31, a fisherman from Guatemala.

"Any group that large, you're probably going to have some people in there that have criminal records, or ties to gangs," says Richard Miles, a security expert and Americas specialist at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

"But if there were a large presence of MS-13, they almost certainly would have been outed by the group itself. Because most of these people, that's exactly what they're fleeing."

Any gang members in the caravan would be detected relatively easily in the United States, which has secure borders and "extensive processes" for vetting all arrivals with fingerprinting, biometric data and background checks, says Bernstein Murray.

- Safety in numbers -

The migrants, who set out from Honduras on October 13, only fueled the fire of Trump's tweets when they stormed Mexico's southern border six days later, overwhelming riot police.

Trump referred to the episode in deploying thousands of troops to the US-Mexican border.

But it is unlikely the caravan -- which has begun to fragment as it crosses central Mexico -- would try to force its way into the US, experts say.

"The one sure way to not get into the United States is to commit an assault against a border patrol officer or US law enforcement official," says Miles.

The migrants are not traveling together to invade the US, but rather to protect themselves from the dangers of the journey across Mexico, where criminal gangs regularly extort, kidnap and kill people like them.

And the size of the group should not cloud the fact that the migrants' arrival at the border will be "business as usual" for the US, says Bernstein Murray.

"The border is more secure than ever," she says.

"And while in any group of human beings, you have a risk that there may be bad actors, the vast majority, nearly all of these individuals, are exactly what they say they are."