On Friday, the migrant caravan of at least 3,000 broke down gates at the Guatemalan border with Mexico and streamed toward a bridge to Mexico. (Oct. 19)
A caravan of U.S.-bound migrants broke down a border crossing Friday and streamed onto a bridge on Mexico’s southern border with Guatemala in the face of a heavy presence of Mexican and Guatemalan law enforcement officers, according to media reports, Mexican and U.S. officials.
The travelers — made up of 1,500 to 4,000 people mostly from Honduras — were eventually stopped on the river crossing, according to video broadcast by the U.S.-based Spanish-language network Telemundo.
Some members of the caravan became so desperate they jumped from the bridge, trying to grab onto one of the makeshift rafts other migrants were using to cross the river into Mexico.
“Unbelievable sight on Mexican border.. tear gas.. rocks being thrown … caravan wants to enter … not able to right now,” tweeted Telemundo anchor José Díaz-Balart.
The network, which had reporters traveling with the caravan, showed Mexican police lined up along the fence holding it up against the waves of migrants trying to push past.
Caravan participants screamed that they were being fired upon with tear gas, but it was unclear from the video whether that was happening. Mexican officials vowed not to harm or mistreat any of the migrants, but tensions were high on Friday.
The group was on an early leg of a 1,100-mile sojourn to the U.S. border that President Donald Trump has made a key argument for his border policies in rallies leading into the midterm elections.
In a series of tweets this week, he angrily threatened to cut off aid to Central America and close the southern border with Mexico if their respective governments failed to deal with the situation.
The Associated Press initially reported that the thousands of migrants stopped about two blocks from the Guatemala-Mexican border crossing before turning around, saying they would wait another hour or so.
The border post was guarded by a heavy security force and tall metal gates, reported the AP. On the Mexican side of a border bridge, the migrants were met by a phalanx of police with riot shields. About 50 managed to push their way through before officers unleashed pepper spray and the rest retreated.
Mexican government officials were trying balance the need to enforce its immigration laws, treat the migrants in a humanitarian way and not further antagonize an unhappy White House.
The migration crisis at Mexico’s southern border happened the same day Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was visiting with top Mexican government officials in Mexico City as part of a previously planned trip.
Pompeo met with top Mexican officials, including Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto, for confronting the caravan of migrants and harshly criticized caravan organizers.
He said the Mexican government deployed 500 federal police officers to the southern border with Guatemala, where at least four were injured.
“We don’t know the severity of those injuries, but I want to express my sympathy to those four policemen,” he told reporters traveling with him late Friday.
He accused the caravan organizers of using women and children as “shields” to attempt to cross Mexico’s border.
“This is an organized effort to come through and violate the sovereignty of Mexico, and so we’re prepared to do all that we can to support the decisions that Mexico makes about how they’re going to address this very serious and important issue to their country,” said Pompeo.
The Mexican had sought the assistance of the United Nations refugee agency review asylum claims of caravan’s mostly Honduran migrants before they can make their way to the U.S.-Mexico border.
The migrants told the AP they fleeing a corrupt government, poverty and violence in Honduras.
Cristian, a 34-year-old cell phone repairman from San Pedro Sula, said he left Honduras because gang members had demanded protection payments of $83 a month, a fifth of his income. It was already hard enough to support his four daughters on the $450 he makes, so he closed his small business instead.
Cristian, who declined to give his last name because the gangsters had threatened him, estimated that about 30 percent of the migrants want to apply for refugee status in Mexico, while the rest want to reach the United States.
“I want to get to the States to contribute to that country,” Cristian told the AP. “to do any kind of work, picking up garbage.”
The mass of migrants arrived in the Guatemalan border town of Tecún Umán, where they slept on the streets and in a park and prepared Friday to cross the Suchiate River – which separates Mexico and Guatemala – and head northward to the U.S. border. Such migrant caravans are not uncommon as those heading north seek safety in numbers as the road through Mexico is rife with risks such as kidnap, rape and extortion.
Mexico has said only those with the proper papers would be allowed entry into the country and dispatched two planeloads of Federal Police officers to the area –which is often so neglected that migrants simply float across the river in rafts into Mexico without having to clear customs.
Mexico said the staff of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees would help identify “legitimate” asylum claims from the migrants who are part of the caravan.
The AP reported that police and immigration agents allowed small groups of 10, 20, 30 people through the gates to apply for refugee status. Once they filed a claim, they were permitted to go to shelter to spend the night.
Some in Mexico have questioned if the government’s plan to accept so many asylum applications would work, given the current backlog of claims and slow processing times.
Mexico has received a crush of asylum claims in recent years as many Central Americans consider Mexico a destination country or prefer to not risk crossing an increasingly fortified U.S. border. The country accepted 14,596 claims in 2017, more than six times the number of applications it received in 2104. In February, the National Human Rights Commission warned of the “pending collapse of the refugee protection system in Mexico” as half of all claims were still unprocessed.
Under the Mexican government’s plan, those migrants whose asylum claims get rejected would be immediately repatriated to Honduras and other countries, Gerónimo Gutiérrez, the Mexican Ambassador to the U.S., told Fox News’ “Special Report” in an interview Thursday.
“We want to make sure that those claims are legitimate,” he said, noting a handful of migrants had already applied for asylum in Mexico.
The Mexican government warned caravan participants “of grave risks” by illegally entering Mexico, including, “the presence of human trafficking networks.” Migrants transiting Mexico are often preyed upon by police and criminal gangs and suffer indignities such as kidnap, rape and extortion.
Dissuading migrants from making northbound trips is difficult, however, as the risks often outweigh remaining in the country.
“The majority of people we’re seeing [leave] from El Salvador and Honduras, principally, it’s still very much still due to the violence,” said Rick Jones, youth and migration adviser at Catholic Relief Services in El Salvador.
Mexican officials say development in Central America the solution to stemming the tide of Central American emigration.
In his successful campaign, incoming Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador said, “We’re not going to do the dirty work of any foreign government.” He takes office in December.
Earlier this week, he said his administration would provide Central Americans with work visas and said development in the region was necessary to stop people from leaving.
Marcelo Ebrard, the incoming foreign minister under Obrador, said Mexico couldn’t let the caravan through, although he noted to Mexican media that “Trump is making a political calculus” given next month’s midterm elections.
The U.S. government provides Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador with foreign assistance of $1.1 billion, according to the Washington Office on Latin America. Homicide rates have topped 80 per 100,000 residents in recent years, but fallen of late.
Corruption is rife, however. Guatemala President Jimmy Morales and several family members are accused of corruption – and subsequently moved to end the work of a UN anti-impunity commission, which has gone after members of the country’s political class.
Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández’s National Party is accused of receiving money embezzled from the country’s social security institution for his 2013 campaign and won a disputed 2017 election after which he sent the police to repress protesters. The U.S.’s recently muted reactions to corruption and human abuses in Central America has left some observers questioning if it’s aggravating an already serious situation, which has led to outward migration.
“You have alleged $100 million-plus corruption scandals in each country with little evidence the governing elites have changed in anyway,” said Mike Allison, an expert in Central American politics at the University of Scranton. “The U.S. should be more concerned about what message that sends.”
USA Today’s Alan Gomez and Sergio Bustos contributed.
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