Tecun Uman, Guatemala – Zulma Rodriguez sat in the shade of a tree outside the Guatemalan immigration office, waiting for some paperwork before she could cross the bridge into Mexico with her kids. They are the reason she fled El Salvador.
“I was forced to leave,” she told Al Jazeera, surrounded by young children, including her six-year-old daughter and 11-year-old son.
Rodriguez’s son was in fifth grade in Ilopango, just a few kilometres east of the capital, San Salvador. Rodriguez worked in a textile factory to support her kids, but could not protect them at school.
Gang members recruit children to sell drugs to their peers, Rodriguez said. Cannabis and cocaine are circulating even in grade school, she added.
“And amphetamines,” her son chimed in.
Rodriguez’s son loves school and was getting good grades, but gang members were pressuring him to join. Saying no is only an option for so long.
“If you refuse [to join], they say they will kill you,” Rodriguez said.
Rodriguez is one of the several thousand Central Americans now crossing into Mexico following the departure earlier this week of migrant and refugee caravans from Honduras and El Salvador.
In dispersed groups, large and small, they quickly crossed Guatemala with a mix of bus rides, walking and hitchhiking. The vast majority of people participating in the current collective Central American exodus are Honduran, but there are many Salvadorans, and some Guatemalans and Nicaraguans have joined along the way.
Mexico is offering humanitarian visas to this wave of Central Americans fleeing violence, poverty, unemployment and persecution in their respective countries. Valid for one year with a possibility of renewal, the visas will allow people to live, work and travel anywhere in Mexico.
As of Thursday night, 969 Central Americans had registered with Mexican immigration officials, who say the visa processing period will only take up to five days. Hundreds of more people were already lined up on the bridge on Friday morning, receiving temporary wristbands for identification during processing, and waiting as the lines slowly advanced towards the Mexican immigration office.
The temporary policy for this wave of Central American migrants and refugees of the administration of Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, who took office last month, stands in stark contrast with that of his predecessor.
Thousands of Central Americans fled in a mass exodus in October and November, when more than 10,000 migrants and refugees made it into Mexico despite a much more closed-door policy. Some 3,000 registered with officials for refugee status consideration, but the majority entered without processing following tense stand-offs at the border, where on one occasion Mexican federal police deployed tear gas and anti-barrier projectiles, killing one Honduran.
More than 6,000 Central Americans made it to Tijuana at the United States border late last year, and some remain, while others have returned home or crossed into the US to request asylum both at and between official points of entry.
Rodriguez left El Salvador as part of last year’s exodus, but she did not make it up to Mexico. Early into the journey, she and her kids met a Honduran mother, also travelling with young children, and they decided to stay in Guatemala as a group and try to start a life there, but soon ran into difficulties.
“In Guatemala, we could not register our kids for school,” Rodriguez said.
The school year had already begun and they were told there was no more room. Rodriguez and her new Honduran friend said they faced discrimination and lower pay. They found some work handing out flyers for a private medical laboratory, but were never paid, so they had to head back home.
Mid-January caravans were planned in advance from both El Salvador and Honduras, and the two mothers both fled their home countries once again, with plans to meet up in Guatemala and continue north into Mexico.
For now, the families have no plans to go to the US. They hope to find work in Mexico and enrol their kids in school.
“My goal is for my children to study. That is my top priority as a mother,” Rodriguez said.
For years, Mexico has cooperated with the US in stopping the northbound advance of migrants and refugees. Mexico deports more Central Americans than the US. Between that long-standing practice and Mexico’s crackdown on last year’s caravans at the border, Central Americans have the reason to be wary.
The uncertainty and doubts were palpable on Thursday evening at an impromptu assembly in the Tecun Uman central park. Mexican and Guatemalan officials were explaining the situation and the details of the humanitarian visa process, but many people were not buying it.
Some Central Americans were convinced it was a trap, even as others returned with wristbands after signing up for the visa process. Most people remained uncertain, discussing their options in small groups scattered around the park, where nearly everyone spent the night.
Before dawn on Friday, hundreds of migrants and refugees decided to not wait around. They crossed the bridge without processing and entered Mexico on foot, walking up to Tapachula, where they began to arrive on Friday afternoon. Police escorted the group and are expected to stop their advance unless they are processed for entry.
Cesar Medina has no reason to mistrust the Mexican government’s promises of humanitarian visas. The 21-year-old has been through the process before, when he took part early last year in a Honduran migrant and refugee caravan whose participants received the visas.
“I was working in Tijuana. I had my Mexican papers,” he told Al Jazeera.
Late last year, though, one of Medina’s relatives was dying and he had to return home to Roatan, an island off the Caribbean coast of Honduras. But due to violence and a lack of employment opportunities, Medina fled the country again this week.
“The crisis is greater than ever,” he said.
Douglas Iritano left for similar reasons, but home for him is in Mixco, just west of Guatemala City. The 43-year-old worked for years painting houses, but gang violence and corruption in Guatemala pushed him to leave. He tried to leave years ago, but was sent back.
“I’m returning to Mexico to take advantage of the humanitarian visa that will allow us to travel throughout Mexico,” he told Al Jazeera, waiting in line to begin the visa application process while a nearby Mexican immigration official hands out sandwiches.
US congresswoman Norma Torres of California has pointed out that the administration of Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales has done little to resolve the causes of migration.
“Guatemala faces many pressing challenges, including gang violence, drug trafficking and nutrition. The current government has done nothing to fix these problems because they have been so focussed on protecting themselves and their cronies from criminal prosecution,” Representative Torres told Al Jazeera in a statement in late December.
“Sadly, many Guatemalans are giving up hope that conditions will ever improve,” Torres said.
Iritano agreed. “All our presidents are thieves,” he said. “Added to that, there are no opportunities for the youth, so they become criminals and gang members. It is better for us to leave in order to support our families.”
Iritano sees migrating as the means of supporting his mother, wife, children, and grandchildren. He migrated to the US, but was deported in 2006. Following the recent caravans, he attempted to head north again, but was deported.
“The previous President, Enrique Pena Nieto, treated migrants like animals. We are humans,” he said. “Thank god that the new President of Mexico, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, is concerned for migrants.”
Iritano arrived to apply for the humanitarian visa on Friday morning. But the long wait does not bother him, even if he has to sleep outside and only eat once a day for a while.
“It is worth it,” he said. “I can travel throughout Mexico without having to hide from immigration officials.”