US-bound migrant caravan in Guatemala swells to 9,000 people

Agence France-Presse . Camotan | Published at 10:19am on January 17, 2021

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Honduran migrants, part of a caravan heading to the United States, hitchhike in Camotan, Guatemala on January 16, 2021. -- AFP photo

At least 9,000 Honduran migrants have entered Guatemala after a first group pushed past border police late Friday and others soon followed on the first step of a journey north they hope will take them to the United States, officials said on Saturday.

Seeking to escape poverty, unemployment, gang and drug violence and the aftermath of two devastating hurricanes, the migrants, most of them traveling on foot, planned to head first to Mexico and then on to the US, a journey of thousands of kilometers.

A first group of men, women and children — many wearing masks due to the COVID-19 pandemic — pushed their way Friday past police at the Guatemalan border town of El Florido, 220 kilometers east of Guatemala City, an AFP correspondent said.

Guatemalan officials said the initial group numbered roughly 6,000; an additional 3,000 crossed into the country on Saturday, they said.

A Guatemalan government statement denounced what it said was a violation of its national sovereignty and called on Honduras to ‘contain the massive departure of its inhabitants, through permanent preventive actions.’

A police official said the migrants were allowed to cross into Guatemala because there were many families with children. They said officers, who were unarmed, feared tear gas could cause casualties.

Border agents asked the migrants for their papers — and demanded proof of negative coronavirus tests — but appeared to let many through who did not meet those requirements.

As the migrants moved northward in small groups, workers with the international committee of the red cross and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees provided some with assistance.

Most of the migrants, many in sandals, carried backpacks with their few belongings.

Olga Ramirez, 28, trudged along with her husband, four children ages 3 to 8, and her brother. She carried the smallest child in her arms and the middle kids rode in a decrepit  stroller that looked like it was about to collapse.

Ramirez said they left Honduras because staying meant running the risk of only eating every other day. She lost her job selling food in a bus station after the facility was privatised.

‘They threw us out like we were dogs, like garbage, as if we were worthless to the country,’ Ramirez said, drying her tears as she walked along the side of the road.

‘And I have no profession to support my family,’ she said.

The migrants are seeking a better life in America under Joe Biden after years of tough anti-immigrant policies under Donald Trump, but US authorities have already warned off the group.

Guatemala, Mexico and Honduras have an agreement with the US to stop north-bound migratory flows.

Biden has promised ‘a fair and humane immigration system’ and pledged aid to tackle the root causes of poverty and violence that drive Central Americans to the United States.

But Mark Morgan, acting commissioner of US customs and border protection, warned the group last week not to ‘waste your time and money.’

The US commitment to the ‘rule of law and public health’ is not affected by the change in administration, he said in a statement.

More than a dozen caravans, some with thousands of migrants, have set off from Honduras since October 2018.

But all have run up against thousands of US border guards and soldiers under Trump, who characterised immigrants from Mexico as ‘rapists’ and criminals.

The Mexican government said it would not allow the ‘illegal entry’ of any migrant caravans and deployed 500 immigration officers to the border states of Chiapas and Tabasco.

Guatemalan migration officials said the Honduran group appeared to be heading for the border post at Tecun Uman in southern Mexico.

Trump said Friday he was extending a national emergency on the border with Mexico, a measure he first imposed in February 2019.

‘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.