Salvadoran Women Eke Out A Living By Selling Fruit In The Mayan Town Of Panchimalco

Doug Sovern, KCBS Radio

Trump Administration Isn't Telling Truth About Caravans, Sources Tell KCBS Radio

Migrants Insist They Are Fleeing Gangs, Not Members Of Them

Doug Sovern
April 22, 2019 - 12:15 am

President Trump's frequent assertions that the migrant caravans trekking through Central America to the U.S. border are riddled with gang members are not true—and the White House knows it, two sources within his administration tell KCBS Radio.

A U.S. intelligence official and a second source in federal law enforcement, both of whom spoke on condition of anonymity, say that the American government knows "exactly" who is in the caravans, and that the administration is well aware that only a tiny fraction are criminals who are not legitimately fleeing economic hardship and credible fear. 

President Trump often insists the migrant caravans are full of gangsters, dismissing them as "stone cold criminals" who pose as families and lie to immigration authorities to win asylum at the border between the U.S. and Mexico. "They're gang members," he said earlier this month while visiting El Centro, California. "It's a scam, ok? It's a scam. It's a hoax."

But a KCBS Radio analysis of data from U.S. Customs and Border Protection reveals that in the first six months of the current fiscal year, authorities arrested only 481 gang members trying to cross that border, which is less than 0.1 percent, or 1/1000th, of the 504,684 people encountered or apprehended there. In the previous fiscal year, 808 gang members were caught, which was slightly more than 0.1 percent of the 653,175 people subject to CBP enforcement action.

"People leave because they need to leave, it's not because we are members of a gang," migrant Sandra Monroy, 42, told KCBS Radio in San Salvador. She and her nephew joined one of the caravans in October, only to be stopped by authorities in Mexico and sent back to El Salvador midway through their arduous journey. "People are leaving this country because they are looking for the American Dream."

From the gritty slums of San Salvador, where men with semi-automatic rifles stand guard on streetcorners, to hillside hamlets where indigenous families still speak the Mayan language Kaqchikel, the conversation across El Salvador is the same, Monroy said.

"Everybody speaks about the American Dream, but the American Dream is getting away from here," she said, because of "the lack of employment, and the violence surrounding us." Monroy said she will try again to escape the country's crushing poverty, and the constant terror posed by street gangs who murder rivals, both real and perceived, with machetes. She has faith that next time, she will reach the U.S. border, where she hopes to apply for legal asylum.

"Wherever God says," she will go, she said. "Because we don't have a specific place to go."

Salvadoran Migrant Sandra Monroy
Doug Sovern, KCBS Radio

The administration sources say while it's true that a small number of gang members and criminals infiltrate the caravans, it's primarily to target them. Monroy agreed with that, saying the gangsters prey on the migrants, robbing and raping them, not attempting to emigrate with them.

"They can't leave and go to America without permission of their gang," she said. "They only come to rob us."

In separate interviews, a Salvadoran expert on the country's street gangs and three other members of migrant caravans echoed Monroy's account.

The White House has not responded to our request for comment on this story.

KCBS Political Reporter Doug Sovern recently returned from international assignment in El Salvador. This is the first part of a five-part special series, "A Desperate Frontier: Death And Dreams In El Salvador," which is airing this week on KCBS Radio.

Part Two: In Gang-Ravaged El Salvador, Survivors Cling To Hope

Part Three: For Young People In El Salvador, US Aid Is A Matter Of Life Or Death

Part Four: Mexican Crackdown On Migrant Caravans Predates Trump's Threats

Part Five: As Caravan Crackdown Forces More Migrants To Use Smugglers, Bay Area Salvadoran Recalls His Harrowing Journey