Guatemala blocks part of caravan of migrants who're trying to reach United States to escape poverty, unemployment, and aftermath of two devastating hurricanes amid coronavirus pandemic.
Guatemalan soldiers have blocked part of a caravan of as many as 9,000 Honduran migrants at a point not far from where they entered the country seeking to reach the US border.
The soldiers, many wearing helmets and wielding shields and sticks, formed ranks across a highway in Chiquimula on Saturday, near the Honduras border, to block the procession of migrants.
Guatemala's immigration agency distributed a video showing a couple of hundred men scuffling with soldiers, pushing and running through their lines, even as troops held hundreds more back.
On Friday, the migrants entered Guatemala by pushing past about 2,000 police and soldiers posted at the border; most entered without showing the negative coronavirus test that Guatemala requires.
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.
Caravan and coronavirus threats
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," Giammattei’s statement continued.
Guatemala has set up almost a dozen control points on highways and may start busing more migrants back to Honduras, as it has done before, arguing they pose a risk to themselves and others by travelling during the coronavirus pandemic.
Governments throughout the region have made it clear they will not let the caravan through.
Mexico beefs up security
Mexico continued to drill thousands of National Guard members and immigration agents on its southern border, in a show of force meant to discourage the caravan from crossing into Mexico.
On Friday night, two groups of more than 3,000 Honduran migrants each pushed their way into Guatemala without registering, part of a larger migrant caravan that had left the Honduran city of San Pedro Sula before dawn.
A third group entered Guatemala on Saturday.
The Honduran migrants are trying to cross Guatemala to reach Mexico, driven by deepening poverty and the hope of a warmer reception if they can reach the United States border.
However, several previous attempts at forming caravans have been broken up by Mexico, Guatemala, and Honduras.
Eta, Iota 'destroyed all of our homes'
On Friday, the migrants had set out at about 4 am (local time) from San Pedro Sula, young men and entire families carrying sleeping children.
Some quickly caught rides while others walked along the highway escorted by police.
Mainor Garcia, a 19-year-old labourer from San Pedro Sula, carried a purple knapsack as he walked along the highway early Friday.
He said he was scared about the journey but willing to run the risk. "(Hurricanes) Eta and Iota destroyed all of our homes," he said.
"There’s no choice" but to leave, said 25-year-old Oscar Zaldivar, a driver from Cofradia. "You have to leave here, this country because we’re going to die here."
The International Committee of the Red Cross said in a statement on Friday that "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.”
The migrants leave with little certainty about how far they will make it. Regional governments have recently appeared more united than ever in stopping their progress.
Issue raised with upcoming Biden administration
Francisco Garduno Yanez, head of Mexico's National Immigration Institute, said in a statement on Friday that his country has "to guarantee our national territory" and called for "an orderly, safe and legal migration with respect for human rights and with humanitarian policies."
On Wednesday, the 11-nation regional conference on migration "expressed concern over the exposure of irregular migrants to situations of high risk to their health and their lives, primarily during the health emergency."
On Thursday, Mexican officials said they had discussed migration with US President-elect Joe Biden's pick for national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, and raised "the possibility of implementing a cooperation programme for the development of northern Central America and southern Mexico, in response to the economic crisis caused by the pandemic and the recent hurricanes in the region."