Guatemalan security forces have clashed with hundreds of Honduran migrants and asylum seekers travelling in a caravan bound for the United States.
Police and soldiers, many wearing helmets and wielding shields and sticks, formed ranks on Saturday across a highway in the village of Vado Hondo, Chiquimula, near the Honduras border, to block the procession of migrants.
Videos distributed by Guatemala’s immigration agency showed a couple of hundred men scuffling with security forces, pushing and running through their lines, even as troops held hundreds more back.
“A small group got through and the rest were detained. The people who got past have been located,” said Alejandra Mena, a spokeswoman for Guatemala’s immigration agency.
The Hondurans were making their way on foot across Guatemala heading towards Mexico, many of them fleeing violence and economic hardship worsened by the COVID-19 pandemic and recent deadly storms.
Guatemala’s officials said as many as 9,000 migrants and asylum seekers have entered the country since Friday.
About 6,000 pushed past about police and soldiers posted at the border on Friday; most entering without showing the negative coronavirus test that Guatemala requires. An additional 3,000 crossed into the country on Saturday, they said.
Guatemalan President Alejandro Giammattei issued a statement calling on Honduran authorities “to contain the mass exit of its inhabitants”.
“The government of Guatemala regrets this violation of national sovereignty and calls on the governments of Central America to take measures to avoid putting their inhabitants at risk amid the health emergency due to the pandemic,” he added.
Mexico vows crackdown
The first migrant caravan of the year is aiming to reach the US, where many hope President-elect Joe Biden will be more welcoming to asylum seekers than President Donald Trump, who oversaw an immigration crackdown.
Biden, who takes office on Wednesday, has promised “a fair and humane immigration system”.
But Mark Morgan, acting commissioner of the US Customs and Border Protection agency, warned the asylum seekers last week not to “waste your time and money”. The US commitment to the “rule of law and public health” would not be affected by the change in administration, he said in a statement.
Guatemala, Mexico and Honduras have an agreement with the US to stop north-bound migratory flows and have deployed thousands of soldiers and riot police aimed at blocking the caravans’ passage.
The Mexican foreign ministry on Saturday praised the Guatemalan government for acting in a “firm and responsible” manner toward migrants who had “violated [Guatemala’s] sovereignty” and urged Honduras to prevent further movements of people.
Mexico, it said, was committed to orderly and regulated migration and would oppose any form of unauthorised entry.
Hunger and homelessness
On Friday, the Guatemalan military detained hundreds of people, including many families with young children.
Nevertheless, the caravan has grown considerably since it departed early on Friday, with members citing a spiralling crisis of hunger and homelessness in Honduras as reasons for joining.
“We have nothing to feed to our children, and thousands of us were left sleeping on the streets,” Maria Jesus Paz, a mother of four who said she lost her home in back-to-back hurricanes that hit Central America in November, told the Reuters news agency.
“This is why we make this decision, even though we know that the journey could cost us our lives,” she added.
Most of the migrants, many in sandals, carried backpacks with their meagre belongings.
Eduardo Lanza, 28, told the AFP news agency he dreamed of living in a country where people of different sexual orientations can live with dignity, “respect … and a job opportunity”.
Another member of the caravan, 51-year-old Norma Pineda, told AFP she has been living on the street since the hurricanes.
“We are leaving because there is no work, no state support. We need food, clothes,” she said.
In a statement on Friday, the International Committee of the Red Cross said: “The combination of COVID-19, social exclusion, violence and climate-related disasters that occur at the same time with a magnitude seldom seen before in Central America raises new humanitarian challenges.”
More than a dozen caravans, some with thousands of migrants, have set off from Honduras since October 2018.
But all have come up against thousands of US border guards and soldiers under Trump, who on Friday extended a national emergency on the border with Mexico.
“Further action is needed to address the humanitarian crisis and to control unlawful migration and the flow of narcotics and criminals,” a White House statement said.