Honduran migrant caravan advances despite fortified borders

As Trump ramps up threats, group of migrants cross into Mexico with thousands more heading towards border behind them.

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    Esquipulas, Guatemala - Dilmer Vigil was not carrying a suitcase.

    When he saw a Honduran caravan of migrants and refugees was leaving his home city of San Pedro Sula last weekend, he decided to join the group with the clothes on his back and little else.

    "It was a mass joining of many people who said, 'I can join, too. I, too, am in the same circumstances. I, too, need a way out for my life.' I am one of them," said Vigil.

    Vigil is part of a caravan of thousands of people who fled Honduras over the past week. Initially together in one large group, the caravan is now heading towards the US in waves by foot, buses and cars.

    Some groups have already crossed into Mexico, others are still heading north through Guatemala, and hundreds more people are attempting to leave Honduras. Under pressure from US President Donald Trump, all three countries are beefing up security and restrictions at their southern borders.

    When Vigil arrived from Honduras at the first border along the way with more than two thousand people on Monday, Guatemalan police blocked their way for two hours. Mexico sent additional forces to its southern border with Guatemala earlier this week and began erecting fences at the Tecun Uman crossing on Friday.

    But caravan participants continue undeterred. Vigil left Honduras in search of employment, but Hondurans are fleeing for a myriad of reasons, including violence, he told Al Jazeera.

    "People can't file reports with authorities because a lot of the time, authorities and the government itself are mixed up in a lot of things," Vigil said.

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    "The situation has gone downhill a lot since November of last year," he adds, referring to the general elections that resulted in Honduran president Juan Orlando Hernandez's contested reelection amid widespread allegations of election fraud. "The oligarchy and the US got together and supported [Hernandez]."

    Undeterred by US threats

    From the outset, Vigil knew the caravan would face obstacles, but said Hondurans feel they have no other choice.

    Honduran police have blocked highways at border crossings, preventing hundreds of people from fleeing. Others have resorted to crossing rivers to enter Guatemala, El Salvador and Mexico to continue north.

    People manoeuvre rafts crossing the Suchiate river, a natural border between Mexico and Guatemala, as Honduran migrants, part of a caravan trying to reach the US, wait to cross into Mexico, in Tecun Uman, Guatemala [Ueslei Marcelino/Reuters]

    Mexican authorities ramped up security forces at the country's southern border on Friday, shortly before a massive group prepared to attempt to enter the country.

    The move came as US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo met Mexican officials to discuss the situation.

    During a joint press conference with his US counterpart, Mexican Foreign Minister Luis Videgaray said his government would process requests for humanitarian visas and asylum in Mexico on an individual basis. On Thursday, the Mexican government requested United Nations assistance in processing caravan participants.

    Pompeo urged Mexican officials to stop the caravan on Friday. "Mexico defines Mexican immigration policy," Videgaray said, adding that his government's priority was to ensure the safety of caravan participants.

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    Separately, Trump thanked Mexico for its efforts, but reiterated that those travelling in the caravan would not be allowed in the United States, and if Mexico did not stop them, he would deploy the US military to the southern border. 

    Earlier this week, US Vice President Mike Pence called Central American leaders to express concern over the caravan, and Trump threatened to cut US aid to the Central American countries and close the US southern border if the migrants are not stopped.

    Activists arrested

    Mexico and Guatemala are also taking action against the activists that have supported the caravan.

    At a rally Thursday in southern Mexico in support of the caravan, Mexican activist Irineo Mujica was arrested. As the director of the Pueblo Sin Fronteras migrant rights organisation, Mujica was actively involved in supporting a caravan of Honduran migrants and refugees earlier this year that also drew the rebuke of Trump. Mujica committed damages and battery, according to the Mexican National Institute of Immigration, alleging Mujica became aggressive when asked for identification.

    A Honduran human rights activist and journalist, Bartolo Fuentes, was detained Tuesday in Guatemala. He entered the country the previous day with the caravan, but was singled out, detained, accused of an administration infraction with regard to his entry into Guatemala. He was held in an immigrant detention centre until Friday morning, when he was deported.

    Honduran migrants, part of a caravan trying to reach the US, wait as police officers stand in line near the border with Mexico, in Tecun Uman, Guatemala [Ueslei Marcelino/Reuters]

    Bertha Oliva, a prominent Honduran human rights activist, told Al Jazeera that she and others are concerned not only for charges Fuentes may face, but also for his life.

    "We can't even say it was an irregular detention. It was an arbitrary detention," said Oliva, the coordinator of the Committee of Relatives of the Detained-Disappeared in Honduras, an organisation she cofounded following her husband's abduction and forced disappearance by a death squad in the early 1980s.

    "Nothing justifies the detention. He has not committed any crime," she said of Fuentes, adding that at most, he committed an administrative infraction, but he was one of the thousands the Guatemalan government failed to process at the border.

    Fuentes's detention and deportation to Honduras come at a time when the government has zero regard for human rights or what international institutions have to say or recommend about human rights violations in Honduras, said Oliva. 

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    "We are in a Honduras that is in a permanent state of emergency," she said in a telephone interview.

    Fuentes was set to be transferred overland, but was suddenly deported on a flight late Friday morning. After questioning by Honduran immigration agents, he was released, but concerns that he may be arrested and charged remain.

    Fuentes is back home, but hundreds of Hondurans are attempting to leave, and the caravan continues in waves.

    A Honduran migrant protects his child after fellow migrants and refugees, part of a caravan trying to reach the US, stormed a border checkpoint in Guatemala, in Ciudad Hidalgo, Mexico [Ueslei Marcelino/Reuters] 

     At the Guatemala-Mexico border on Friday police initially stopped a group of about 1,000 migrants and refugees, using tear gas to turn back the crowd. People then began climbing fences and pushing through. Some within the group were later able to advance, with women and children heading through the gates first. Other groups are heading north behind them.

    Vigil said he hopes to at least make it into Mexico. He knows it will be even more difficult to enter the US, and he would be happy trying to make a new life for himself before the caravan reaches its final destination.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera News