About 1,000 Honduran migrants headed for the United States became increasingly desperate Friday in the face of a police and army roadblock in northern Guatemala that was preventing them from continuing toward the United States.
Seldom since 2018 have the prospects for a migrant caravan been so discouraging. Guatemala’s president sees them as a contagion risk amid the coronavirus pandemic and has vowed to deport them. Mexico’s president thinks the caravan is a plot to influence the U.S. elections. And newly formed Tropical Storm Gamma threatens to dump torrential rain on their planned route through southern Mexico
Fears of a confrontation grew as over 100 Guatemalan soldiers and police blocked the migrants who became increasingly frustrated with the lack of food and forward movement after walking hundreds of kilometers from Honduras earlier this week.
Migrants' voices rang out on the rural highway, demanding authorities either let them through or provide them food.
As night fell, Honduran migrant Paola Díaz spread a blanket on the roadside and put pajamas on her children, aged 4 and 6, in hopes they might sleep awhile.
Díaz said she decided to join the caravan with her husband, Alejando Vásquez, 23, because what he earned as a mechanic was no longer enough to buy the children food.
“At first I wanted to turn back, but some doors have been opened, and I think we are going to be able to make it through,” said Díaz, while acknowledging that she was afraid for her children if a confrontation develops.
Some migrants playing improvised leadership roles tried to dialogue with the security forces.
“You cannot deny us the right to go on,” one of the migrant leaders told a police officer. “Tell your bosses to give us a chance,” said the man, who did not identify himself. The police office responded that the migrants had entered the country illegally, and that their orders were to return them to Honduras, or at least not allow them to proceed toward the Mexican border.
Guatemala immigration authorities said some of the original group of about 2,000 migrants had agreed to return to Honduras. The others had split between two routes: Some travelled north to Peten, where the roadblock was, and others walked, hitched rides took buses west toward the capital, Guatemala City.
Honduran Fernando Sabión, 20, walked along shirtless on the northern route, carrying Angel, a 4-month-old baby, in his arms. The boy isn’t his, but Sabión was helping the baby’s mother, Madelin, on the wearying walk through tropical heat.
“I am going (north) because I want to meet my father. He is in the United States,” said Sabión. “He left when I was a baby, and I want to go up there and find a job in construction.”
Madelin trudged along, saying “Even though you get blisters on your feet, you’re doing it for your children. We knew it would be hard, but we’re going to get there.”
Some hitched rides aboard passing trucks. Wilmer Chávez, 35, got aboard the bed of one truck in his wheelchair with the help of fellow Honduran migrants.
In Mexico, President Andrés Manuel López Obrador suggested Friday that the estimated 2,000 migrants who set out from San Pedro Sula, Honduras, had perhaps been organized with U.S. politicis in mind.
“I think it has to do with the election in the United States,” López Obrador said. “I don’t have all the elements, but there are indications that it formed with that purpose. I don’t know to whose benefit, but we’re not naive.”
The new group was reminiscent of a migrant caravan that formed two years ago shortly before U.S. midterm elections. It became a hot issue in the campaign, fueling anti-immigrant rhetoric.
But on Friday, Mexico's point man on the coronavirus pandemic, Assistant Health Secretary Hugo López-Gatell, sounded more conciliatory, saying the migrants didn't represent a health threat and that Mexico was “morally, legally and politically obliged to help them.”
He said that “2,900 people of whatever nationality are unlikely to significantly contribute to a public health problem for Mexico."
On Thursday, Guatemalan President Alejandro Giammattei vowed to return the migrants to Honduras, citing efforts to contain the pandemic.
“We will not allow any foreigner who has used illegal means to enter the country, to think that they have the right to come and infect us and put us at serious risk,” he said in a broadcast address.
Guatemala’s immigration agency reported Friday that 108 migrants had voluntarily agreed to return to Honduras. Another 25 unaccompanied minors were in the care of social services.
Migrant caravans from Central America gained popularity in recent years because they provided some degree of safety in numbers and allowed those who couldn’t afford to pay a smuggler to attempt the trip to the United States.
At first, they received generous support from the communities they passed, especially in southern Mexico. Last year, however, U.S. President Donald Trump threatened crippling tariffs on Mexican imports if it didn't slow the flow of migrants to the U.S. border. Mexico responded by deploying the National Guard and more immigration agents to intercept large groups of migrants.
The last attempted caravan was broken up by Mexican guardsmen in January.
This week, Mexico has been warning that it will enforce its immigration laws and even prosecute people who knowingly put public health at risk.
Even if the migrants were allowed to cross Mexico without interference, the U.S. has essentially closed its border to legal immigration and entering illegally is as difficult as ever.
Associated Press writer Christopher Sherman in Mexico City contributed to this report.