By Delphine Schrank
PIJIJIAPAN, Mexico (Reuters) - Just past 4 a.m., under a star-streaked sky, the Central American migrants shouldered their bags and picked over broken sidewalks, - first as a trickle, then as a flood - to the edge of the Mexican town.
They walked straight, without hesitation. Few spoke much. Their compass point was north, towards the United States.
Their goal for the day was Pijijiapan. The town, 30 miles away, was the next stop on a trek by thousands in a caravan that has so enraged U.S. President Donald Trump he has threatened to close the U.S.-Mexico border and slash aid to Central America.
Honduran boys Adonai, 5, and Denzel, 8, set off from Mapastepec still fogged with sleep. Their mother, Glenda Escobar, 33, clutched her youngest's hand. Her friend, Maria, held onto Denzel's T-shirt.
No-one had a torch. Potholes were treacherous. Only the floodlights of the odd truck in the opposite lane of the highway helped them see a few feet at a time.
Within minutes, a young man lay on his back, hugging his knee to his chest. He'd smashed his ankle on a rock, he said, and was in too much pain to stand. The single mother and her boys strode past, keeping pace with the long train of people.
Her ultimate destination: Los Angeles, a city where she knows no one. "It's because in my dreams, God told me that's where he's sending me," she said.
Trump, who campaigned against illegal immigration to win the 2016 U.S. presidential vote, has seized on this caravan in the run-up to the Nov. 6 mid-term congressional elections, firing up support for his Republican Party.
Yet its members make up a fraction of the hundreds of thousands of people who every year flee violence and poverty in Central America for the United States.
Estimates on the size of the caravan vary from around 3,500 to more than double that. Some migrants have abandoned the journey, deterred by the hardships or the possibility of making a new life in Mexico. Others joined it in southern Mexico.
30 MILES A DAY
Escobar kneaded her shin. Agile and slight, she used to exercise regularly back home in the crime-wracked city of San Pedro Sula. But even the hardiest would have struggled to cover about 30 miles every day since she joined the caravan on Oct. 14.
If she and her boys were lucky, a passing car or minivan would give them a ride before the sun turned the day from sticky warm to sticky hot.
Soon the boys watched wide-eyed as dozens, mainly young men, sprinted for the backs of slowing trucks and jumped aboard - an impossible feat for a mother with two small children.
Escobar’s family had had no food or water since residents of Mapastepec provided them a dinner of rice, beans, and eggs about 12 hours earlier.
That morning, there had been nothing to eat at the school where they slept on a three-foot (1 meter) square patch of floor, squeezed among dozens of parents with small children.
At least they had found shelter from the night's downpour that soaked hundreds who slept on the sidewalks.
A shifting committee of self-appointed representatives in green jackets decide when to rise, move or sweep the streets they borrow for a night. The caravan follows like clockwork.
Through Guatemala to southern Mexico, private citizens, church groups and local organizations offered help at almost every stop and on the walks in between.
Since entering Mexico, they have been assisted by members of Pueblo Sin Fronteras, a migrant rights group that has guided caravans through the country for several years, including one that drew the ire of Trump in April.
His broadsides against that caravan generated enormous publicity, convincing others desperate to leave Central America that caravans are a safer way to travel. Others have begun forming behind Escobar's group.
LOOKING FOR WORK
By 9 a.m, two hours past sunrise, the first hitchhikers reached Pijijiapan.
Far behind, the Escobars walked, paused, zig-zagged into the bushes, walked, and stopped again.
"We've been going so many days," Escobar said, watching her sons flag, then suddenly leap to life and give each other piggy backs. "Should we rest here a bit?"
The boys dropped down and started wrestling, which did nothing to stir Maria, who fell asleep in seconds on her backpack. Escobar, splayed on her back, stared at the sky, relating the many reasons that led to her journey.
The eldest of seven children, she abandoned school and dreams of becoming a detective to help her mother.
Life spiralled down at 18, she said, when on her way to work, a man she knew kidnapped her. She escaped but was pregnant with the child of her rapist, a former policeman who turned out to be a member of Barrio-18, she said. That brutal gang, together with MS-13, dominates much of El Salvador and Honduras.
He disappeared, believed to have been killed, but no one ever found the body, she said.
She raised his girl and had a son with another man. In time, he fled to the United States, promising to send for her. Within a year, his sister told her he had married someone else.
Finally, she fell for a mototaxi driver, who fathered Denzel and Adonai. But he began to throw things at her and abuse her and the boys. Then he forced her out of the house she had paid for with money saved from years working as a cook and a seamstress, she said.
When a neighbour told her about the caravan, she packed fast: a plastic tarp, clothes for the children, some soap. She left her two eldest with family, hoping to fetch them later.
Coordinators have left open when and where the caravan might reach the U.S. border, saying it will likely fragment as many people stay in Mexico.
Escobar and her family heaved to their feet. Denzel unfolded a discarded pamphlet that workers from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) distributed to the caravan two towns back.
To disperse the convoy, Mexico has offered the Central Americans temporary jobs and identification papers if they submit requests for asylum in the south. But most have rejected the offer.
"No, no," Escobar told her son. "The United States is better. For everything."
POLICE FLAG DOWN RIDES
After six hours, Escobar started hitchhiking.
Just ahead, Captain Aispuro of the Mexican federal police was flagging down rides for women and children.
With no orders to stop the band of travellers, Aispuro said he felt a duty to help. That day, he had found around 10 rides for mothers with children, he said.
Escobar managed alone.
Settled inside a minivan, their faces shone with gratitude.
In Pijijiapan, hundreds had turned the main square into a mix of carnival and refugee camp. The family headed for a warehouse-sized shelter reserved for anyone with children.
A medical aide squeezed iodine on a woman's bleeding foot. People swarmed into the bathroom. Many fled for a dip in a river.
In mid-afternoon, the warehouse was stifling with the crush of bodies. Escobar searched outside and set her plastic tarp under a tree. Two more stops and they would board a northbound freight train known as 'La Bestia' (the Beast), she said.
All around, adults fell asleep, exhausted.
But Adonai was sprinting for his third bottle of water. And Denzel was climbing a tree.
"They're as strong as adults," she said. No sweat then, rousing them for the next day's 3 a.m. start.
(Editing by Dave Graham, Daniel Flynn and David Gregorio)