Prominent Guatemala migrant shelter receives threats: Director

Country’s rights ombudsman calls for probe into threats against Casa del Migrante, which hosts migrants heading north.

Brazilian priest Mauro Verzeletti gives instructions before distributing breakfast to Honduran migrants preparing to resume their journey in hopes of reaching United States outside the Casa del Migrante shelter in Guatemala City [Moises Castillo/AP Photo]

Guatemala City – As thousands of migrants tried to pass the Guatemala-Mexico border in the latest Central American caravan, a prominent migrant rights advocate in Guatemala said his shelter received numerous threats against those who run the facility.

“They started seriously bothering us by phone, threatening all our work,” said Mauro Verzeletti, a priest who runs the Casa del Migrante migrant shelter in Guatemala City, told Al Jazeera.

“They said the first target of the action of the group they had organised was the Casa del Migrante, my person, and the personnel,” he told Al Jazeera, adding that he filed a report with public prosecutors on Tuesday over the phone calls.

Casa del Migrante is part of an international network of shelters run by the Scalabrinians, a Catholic order devoted to the welfare of migrants.

The shelter is a key waypoint for migrants and asylum seekers on their journey through Central America to Mexico or the US, whether they are alone or in the visible large caravan groups that have been transiting Guatemala since 2018.

More than 4,000 predominantly Honduran migrants and asylum seekers entered the country last week. As they made their north, the Casa del Migrante in Guatemala City hosted roughly 2,300 caravan participants, according to Verzeletti.

Verzeletti and the shelter have occasionally been threatened before, he said, noting a series of serious threats in 2003 and another episode years ago, before the shelter moved to its current location.

“Now, with these caravans that we have attended to, there have once again been direct threats by telephone,” he said.

Honduran migrants rest at Casa del Migrante shelter, after arriving to Guatemala City [File: Moises Castillo/AP Photo] 

During one of the threatening calls, an individual implied they were connected to the Guatemalan Immigration Institute. The government agency dispelled the notion.

“Casa del Migrante has been a strategic partner in the attention to and protection of the fundamental rights of national and foreign migrants,” the institute said in a statement Tuesday, explicitly expressing solidarity with Verzeletti and support for his request for security.

The threats against Verzeletti and the shelter were concerning, said Jordan Rodas, Guatemala’s human rights ombudsman. He accompanied Verzeletti on Tuesday to file the formal report and hopes an investigation will lead to those responsible.

“Casa del Migrante is the entity of most solidarity with migrants in Guatemala and its work is recognised at the national and international levels,” Rodas told Al Jazeera.

Many other Guatemalan human rights advocates also condemned the threats and expressed their support Tuesday for Verzeletti and the Casa del Migrante, as did representatives from the Guatemalan offices of United Nations agencies and others.

Rodas also noted there have also been positive signs from the new government of President Alejandro Giammattei, who took office last week.

“It is necessary to positively assess the humanitarian focus the new government’s Ministry of Public Health is giving to our migrant brothers and sisters during their stay in the country,” said Rodas.

“A difference from the previous government is already apparent,” he said.

The new health minister and two vice ministers, all doctors, visited the crowded Casa del Migrante shelter on Friday. They personally provided some medical attention to migrants and asylum seekers and later sent a donation of medical supplies.

Health authorities also set up and staffed a mobile clinic in Ayutla, at the Tecun Uman border crossing with Mexico. Public health workers have also provided medical attention at El Ceibo, another border crossing with Mexico, and at the Casa del Migrante in Esquipulas, near the Honduran border.

“The objective is to reduce, via preventive actions and medical attention, the impact of phenomena or incidents with adverse health effects for those participating in the migrant caravan,” the Ministry of Public Health and Social Assistance said in a statement on Saturday.

Guatemala-US asylum deal

The fact that health officials from the new government reached out to the Casa del Migrante is a departure from the previous administration, but Verzeletti is hesitant to read too much into it yet.

“At least they approached us. They came here and saw what we were experiencing,” he said. “We will see if they keep it up throughout this term.”

A decade ago, some basic operational support funds for Casa del Migrante were written into the national budget. But two years ago, when the shelter network was more overwhelmed than ever with Honduran and Salvadoran caravans, the roughly $195,000 in annual funding was cut completely.

Migrants from Honduras and El Salvador wait at Casa del Migrante shelter in Guatemala City after being sent back to Guatemala from the United States [Luis Echeverria/Reuters] 

Verzeletti attributes the cut to his own statements to media, speaking out on immigration policy, human rights violations, and the failure of governments to address factors spurring migration and implement policies in favour of the most excluded and marginalised sectors of the population.

He has also been a fierce critic of the controversial asylum cooperation agreement signed by Guatemala and the United States last year. The US has sent more than 230 Honduran and Salvadoran asylum seekers to Guatemala since implementation began in late November.

The future of the asylum deal was in limbo when Giammattei took office, but it will continue under his administration. Guatemalan officials will meet with a team of US specialists to review capacities and implementation, the Minister of Foreign Affairs said Wednesday.

Source: Al Jazeera