Agua Caliente, Guatemala – Daysi Pena had a large smile on her face after she crossed the border into Guatemala on Monday with three of her grandchildren.
It was the first of three borders they hope to cross with a migrant caravan from Honduras that now has well over 2,000 people and continues to grow.
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“I made the decision to join because there is no other alternative. I was overwhelmed by fear,” Pena told Al Jazeera after entering Guatemala not far from Agua Caliente border crossing.
Pena has been raising her grandchildren in Chamelecon, a city with one of the highest murder rates in Honduras, which is among the world’s top 10 countries in terms of per capita homicide rates.
Now 12, 14 and 16 years old, the grandchildren she brought with her were abandoned by their mother. Their father has been living undocumented in the US for the past five years and sends money for food when he can.
The family was living in fear of criminal gang activity in their neighbourhood. Gang members tried to recruit the two boys but it was the threat to Pena’s 14-year-old granddaughter from gang members that prompted her to leave Honduras and travel north.
“One of them came over and told me she was going to be his and that if she was not his, she would not be anyone’s. He would kill her,” Pena said. “It is not possible to argue with those people.”
Pena had planned to leave in December and try to make it to the US. Aside from the children’ father, she also has a daughter who has been living legally in the US for 25 years.
On Saturday, as she watched the news about the caravan leaving San Pedro Sula, she decided to leave then and there. Pena and her grandchildren, as well as one of her nephews, took a bus on Sunday to meet up with the group in Ocotepeque, 21 kilometres from the Guatemalan border.
“We felt more strength. We felt safer,” Pena said of the decision to join the migrant caravan instead of waiting to leave on their own later this year.
Group initially stopped by Guatemala
Like Pena, the majority of those at the border only found out about the caravan on Saturday, when the group was leaving San Pedro Sula. Others found out and decided to join a day or two prior to departure.
An initial ad hoc group of fewer than 200 people had been planning the trip over Whatsapp chat groups. The migrant caravan has now well surpassed 2,000 people and hundreds more are on their way from different regions of Honduras.
Among them is William Alvarado, who made the trek seven years ago. Sixteen years old at the time, he set out by himself, eventually making his way across the US-Mexico border without documents. He spent years in the US foster system before obtaining a green card. While on a visit home earlier this year, his wallet, along with his green card, was stolen. Alvarado joined the caravan after US embassy staff told him he should turn himself in at the border as a US immigration court would be able to resolve his case more quickly than they could.
Alvarado, Pena and the rest of the group crossed the border into Guatemala on Monday, but not without difficulty. When the caravan arrived at the Guatemalan side of the Agua Caliente border crossing shortly before noon, they found their path blocked by the Guatemalan national police.
For approximately two hours, dozens of police officers formed lines across the highway while governmental and non-governmental human rights representatives discussed the situation with officials.
Babies cried in the heat and high humidity and, within a span of 10 minutes, two children fainted and were carried up into the area between police lines. Red Cross personnel brought in bags of water, but it was not enough to reach the back of the crowd packed onto the highway.
Eventually, families with infants and small children were allowed to pass. After another 30 minutes, the rest streamed into Guatemala, with many cheering ‘Yes we can!’ as they marched past riot police.
“We want to tell the authorities of Guatemala and tell the president of Guatemala that we are not doing anything wrong,” Pena said. “Our mission is just to pass through because the goal is to reach the United States.”
The group was stopped again as it made it way to Esquipulas, about 10km from the border crossing. For more than an hour, Guatemalan police blocked the highway. A section of the crowd closest to police held their identification documents in the air, requesting passage, which was eventually granted.
It was getting dark by the time the caravan arrived in Esquipulas, winding through the city streets on their way to shelters. Local residents showed up at intersections and in doorways, some to hand out water or express support and others out of curiosity.
Locales brought water to hand out to #Honduras Honduras migrant caravan participants. Passers-by are honking. People are cheering as they walk the Lady stretch to Esquipulas, #Guatemala. pic.twitter.com/q1n0VMwbZx
— Sandra Cuffe (@Sandra_Cuffe) October 15, 2018
The caravan was making its way up through southern Guatemala on Tuesday, but the next two borders they eventually plan to cross may prove even more difficult.
Trump issues warning
Both Mexico and the US Embassy in Honduras issued statements over the weekend, saying migrants will need proper documentation to be able to cross their borders.
On Tuesday, Trump warned that if the caravan of migrants were not stopped, the US would cut off millions of dollars in aid to Honduras.
“The United States has strongly informed the President of Honduras that if the large Caravan of people heading to the U.S. is not stopped and brought back to Honduras, no more money or aid will be given to Honduras, effective immediately.”
The warning came, however, after the caravan had already entered Guatemala.
Those travelling as part of the caravan know they may not make it to the US and what it may mean if they do.
Trump’s zero-tolerance immigration policy was heavily scrutinised earlier this year when his administration implemented a practice of separating families at the border. Although the president has since put an end to the practice, hundreds of children remain separated from the families as Trump continues to try to make good on his promise of cracking down on immigration, especially as the November US midterm elections approach.
For Pena, the risks far outweigh the potential consequences of staying in Honduras. She said if they don’t make it to the US, she has family they could stay with in Mexico. The most important thing, she said, was getting her grandchildren out of their home country.