Guatemala has promised to break up a caravan of about 2,000 migrants that set out from neighbouring Honduras this week in hopes of reaching the United States, saying they represent a health threat amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
The first Honduran migrants entered Guatemala on foot on Thursday and the country’s president, Alejandro Giammattei, promised to detain and send them back to the border.
“The order has been given to detain all those who entered illegally, and return them to the border of their country,” Giammattei said in a broadcast address to the nation.
“We will not allow any foreigner who has used illegal means to enter the country, to think that they have the right to come and infect us and put us at serious risk.”
Giammattei also issued an order that would suspend some constitutional rights in the provinces they were expected to pass through, apparently in order to facilitate detaining them.
Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador on Friday also questioned the timing of the caravan, saying its departure from Honduras had been timed to provoke ahead of US presidential elections on November 3.
“It is very weird, very strange,” Lopez Obrador told a news conference. “It’s a matter that I believe is linked to the US election,” he said, without providing any evidence for his claim.
The departure of the new group this week was reminiscent of a migrant caravan that formed two years ago shortly before US midterm elections. It became a hot issue in the campaign, driving anti-immigrant rhetoric.
A witness told the Reuters news agency that a few hundred migrants at the Guatemala-Honduras border turned back on Friday morning. Many said they were worn out, short on food and worried a tough reception awaited them further along the road.
“We’re going back … because the [Mexican] president said we weren’t following the rules and that we were breaking many laws,” said Nelson Aguilera, who on Thursday joined the caravan in Honduras with his wife and daughter.
There's no work. The necessity strangles you
Authorities had planned to register the migrants as they crossed earlier on Thursday and offer assistance to those willing to turn back, but a group crossed the official border at Corinto without registering, the Associated Press news agency reported.
Josty Morales, 15, was among a group of four teenagers that set out from San Pedro Sula in Honduras.
He told the AP news agency he was looking for a way to support his six-month-old son at home. “There’s no work. The necessity strangles you,” Morales said.
Maria Elena Hernandez, 42, who once worked as a cook, was sitting in the rain on Thursday, seeking a bit of shelter under a piece of metal roofing with her daughter and eight-year-old granddaughter.
Hernandez told the AP news agency she heard about the caravan on Facebook. She said the last job she had was months ago at a corner store, but the business closed down due to the pandemic.
The caravan comes amid widespread job losses in Latin America linked to the COVID-19 pandemic – at least 34 million, according to the United Nation’s International Labor Organization (ILO) – which has hit several countries in the region hard.
The flow of migrants north from Central America had slowed dramatically during the pandemic as countries throughout the region closed their borders.
Most migrant shelters along the principal routes closed their doors to new arrivals as they tried to keep the virus from spreading to vulnerable populations.