‘I was so scared’: Guatemalan forces disperse migrant caravan

Honduran migrants and asylum seekers in US-bound caravan say they are fleeing hurricane devastation, unemployment and violence.

A Honduran man reacts after Guatemalan security forces cleared a road where migrants and asylum seekers have been camping after authorities halted their trek to the United States, in Vado Hondo, Guatemala [Luis Echeverria/Reuters]

Vado Hondo, Guatemala – Military and police forces in Guatemala cleared thousands of United States-bound migrants and asylum seekers off a highway on Monday after blocking their advance for two days.

“I was so scared,” Kayla, a 16-year-old transgender girl from a town in western Honduras, told Al Jazeera shortly after the eviction.

At least 8,000 Hondurans crossed into Guatemala since Thursday in several large caravan groups and some 300 Salvadorans caught up with them on Monday. Most hoped to make it to the US, while others planned on staying in Mexico.

Honduran migrants and asylum seekers told Al Jazeera they were fleeing devastation from two Category 4 hurricanes last November, as well as chronic unemployment and diverse forms of violence in their home country.

“In Honduras, people threaten to kill us [transgender people],” said Kayla, whose last name is not being used because she is a minor. “We decided it was better to leave for somewhere else,” she said, adding that she hoped to make it to Mexico.

At least 8,000 Hondurans crossed into Guatemala since Thursday in several large caravan groups [Luis Echeverria/Reuters]

The exodus is the latest of several migrant caravans in the past three years and comes just days before US President-elect Joe Biden will be inaugurated.

Initially, some large groups of thousands of migrants and asylum seekers made it to the US southern border but recent caravans have been stopped by Honduras, and more recently, Guatemala.

Guatemalan security forces halted roughly 6,000 people on Saturday in Vado Hondo, roughly six miles (9.7km) south of Chiquimula, a city in the country’s southeast. Most migrants and asylum seekers, including families with small children, had little water or food over the weekend.

Commercial traffic was stalled along the highway, which leads to two border crossings with Honduras, including El Florido, from which the Hondurans had entered and walked 27 miles (43km) into Guatemalan territory to Vado Hondo.

Tensions high

Tensions were already high on Monday when officials once again unsuccessfully attempted to persuade Hondurans to board buses back to the border. An immigration official and then a police official issued warnings for people to clear the highway.

In response, some migrants commandeered three large trucks stuck behind the group and moved them towards the multiple rows of police and military forces.

“We have tried to negotiate with you,” Coronel Barahona Gutierrez, an army commander from nearby Zacapa, told the crowd over a megaphone as people shouted back. “As of right now, I give you 10 minutes,” he said.

Some migrants and asylum seekers, particularly those travelling with children, moved further back from the military and police lines but most people stayed put.

Guatemalan security forces detain a Honduran migrant as they clear a road where the migrants have been camping after authorities halted their trek to the United States, in Vado Hondo, Guatemala, January 18, 2021.[Luis Echeverria/Reuters]

The trucks were driven amid cheers to the front of the crowd, where some had been holding Honduran and US flags throughout the day. Others waved makeshift white flags.

Hondurans sang their national anthem while police and military police in riot gear prepared to advance. They banged batons on their shields behind the front rows of police officers in regular uniform.

Hundreds of police and military forces quickly surged forward, pushing migrants and asylum seekers south along the highway and off the highway itself.

The security forces’ actions were part of a prior agreement between various government agencies, army spokesman Coronel Ruben Tellez told Al Jazeera. They were carried out according to legislation regulating the use of force following negotiation attempts and two warnings, he said.

Hondurans taking part in a new caravan of migrants, set to head to the United States, gather in front of police officers blocking the road in Vado Hondo, Guatemala January 18, 2021. [Luis Echeverria/Reuters]

A soldier and a police officer were injured by rocks thrown by migrants, said Tellez.

Al Jazeera witnessed volunteer medics treating a migrant man with a bleeding head wound and a woman who appeared to have fainted. A young child was crying at her feet.

Military and police forces reopened the highway to traffic, forcing many people down the side road to the El Florido border with Honduras. Many other migrants and asylum seekers dispersed to nearby areas and communities.

‘Migrating is a right’

Liseth Sierra arrived in Vado Hondo on Monday morning after leaving Sunday from Choluteca, a city in southern Honduras.

“Everything was calm. We thought we were going to achieve our goal,” Sierra, who hopes to make it to the US, told Al Jazeera at the side of the road to El Florido. “They violated our rights,” she said. “Migrating is a right.”

The 30-year-old worked in a textile factory in northwestern Honduras but its operations shut down shortly after the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March. “Everything is getting more expensive – rice, beans, electricity – and salaries do not cover it,” Sierra said.

She returned to Choluteca but was unable to find employment to support her family. She left her children, aged 6, 11 and 16, in the care of her aunt, and headed off to join the growing migrant caravan in Guatemala.

Honduran migrants react after Guatemalan security forces cleared the road in Vado Hondo [Luis Echeverria/Reuters]

Sierra and Kayla were uncertain on Monday afternoon about what to do. Guatemalan officials told people buses would be available to return to Honduras, and they were leaning towards heading back.

At the time of publication, Guatemalan immigration officials had not yet said how many people had been sent back on Monday to Honduras from Vado Hondo.

In recent days, approximately 1,500 Hondurans have been expelled from Guatemala, many of them caught at checkpoints around the country.

Even if she does go back to Honduras, Sierra said she would try to head north again. “We have not lost hope and we have not lost faith either,” she told Al Jazeera.

Source: Al Jazeera