Tuzantan, Mexico – Mexican immigration and security forces cracked down on a caravan of migrants and asylum seekers on Saturday, the eve of the anniversary of the departure of the Honduran collective exodus that captured international attention.
As the United States and Mexico continue to restrict options for migrants and asylum seekers, many have been stuck for months in Tapachula, a city in the southern state of Chiapas, hoping for documentation that permits transit north through Mexico to the US border.
Before dawn on Saturday, more than 1,000 migrants and asylum seekers from various African, Caribbean and Central American countries set out together from Tapachula. Following in the footsteps of past caravans, they planned to spend the first night in Huixtla, 41km (25 miles) north, but their journey was cut short approximately three-quarters of the way there.
Mexican immigration and security forces mounted a major operation on Saturday afternoon to halt the caravan’s advance. National Guard troops blocked the highway, the main corridor for commercial traffic between Mexico and Guatemala, while other National Guard troops, federal police and immigration agents fanned out in the area.
“What can we do?” Lucie*, an asylum seeker from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, told Al Jazeera as she gestured at the security forces blocking the route.
“We have no other option. We have to pass,” she said.
The majority of caravan participants, faced with few alternatives, boarded transport to return to Tapachula. A smaller group refused and began walking back along the highway, with National Guard troops and immigration agents following in a coordinated pursuit.
Mexican security forces eventually partially opened the highway to traffic. A National Guard contingent marched and ran south to block the next turn-off while other troops and immigration agents pursued migrants and asylum seekers retreating and scattering onto back roads and adjacent fields.
The Mexican forces took small family groups and individuals, many of them distraught, into custody, loading strollers that were used to carry infants and toddlers into the back of immigration vans.
The Mexican National Immigration Institute said in a statement on Saturday that the institute, “with complete respect for human rights, carried out actions to invite the foreign nationals who formed the contingent that departed from the city of Tapachula, Chiapas, to turn to the institute to get to know the options for the regularisation of their stay in the country.”
Immigration authorities will attend to each person and either begin an administrative immigration process or return them to their country of origin, according to the institute’s statement.
But many of Saturday’s caravan participants began the process weeks and even months ago. African migrants and asylum seekers requesting authorisation to transit north through Mexico have been protesting in Tapachula for more than a month.
‘Either immigration will get you or the cartels will’
Saturday’s failed attempt to head north came a year after a separate US-bound caravan of Honduran migrants and asylum seekers departed the San Pedro Sula bus terminal in Honduras. By the time that group was making its way up through Chiapas, it was comprised of some 7,000 people from Honduras, El Salvador, and other countries.
The US government responded to the caravan and others that followed with alarmist rhetoric, border militarisation, and ever-shifting asylum restrictions. After US threats of tariffs earlier this year, Mexico stepped up its own crackdown and deployed the National Guard to southern regions.
Despite the clampdowns and deployment of border troops, Camilo*, a 19-year-old migrant from El Salvador fleeing gang violence and other threats, said he would try to make his way to the US. He used a raft to go across the Suchiate River from Guatemala into Mexico and made it the 35km (22 miles) up to Tapachula by skirting checkpoints along the way.
“You have to run into the bush like an iguana,” Camilo told Al Jazeera, making a zig-zag motion with his hand.
“The route north from here is tough,” he said. “Either immigration will get you or the cartels will.”
Like the US southern border areas, the most dangerous routes through Mexico are often the only option left for migrants and asylum seekers. Two men from Cameroon drowned on Friday when a boat carrying asylum seekers capsised off the coast of Chiapas.
* Names have been changed to protect the individuals’ identities.