MEXICO CITY, GUATEMALA CITY - A caravan of thousands of migrants that departed Honduras last week heading to the United States never made it more than 400 miles. The Guatemalan military blocked the roads along which people were hitchhiking and walking, forcing the majority of migrants to board buses back to the Honduran border and leaving the remainder with no routes forward.
The hard-line response from the Guatemalan government, which confronted migrants with armored jeeps and soldiers armed with automatic rifles, was unprecedented. Authorities in Central America have never previously made such resolute efforts to block large groups of migrants from entering Mexico, which neighbors it to the north.
The swift end of the migrant exodus shows how the strategy of rounding up already exhausted migrants, used by Mexico to take the wind out of previous caravans, is now being used by its neighbors. And that laws restricting border-crossing during the COVID-19 pandemic can be used swiftly against people who are attempting to flee from the region.
The most recent action from the government of Guatemala was justified by President Alejandro Giammattei as a measure of containing the spread of COVID-19 - he said that the caravan was a contagion risk.
There is currently immense pressure from the administration of United States President Donald Trump on nations across Central America to stop the flow of their citizens north to the U.S. border with Mexico.
“When the President gave the order to detain and remove them, it went against all prerequisites and norms established in the Guatemalan migration code,” said Eduardo Wolke of the Guatemalan Human Rights Ombudsman’s office. “This is not what a democratic society does.”
The dispersal of the caravan only three days after its departure from the city of San Pedro Sula in Honduras was a sign of the increased barriers that migrants have faced during the pandemic.
A day after the migrants left Honduras, Giammattei declared a state of emergency in the eastern part of Guatemala, beefing up police and military presence, and suspending constitutional rights. About 3,300 migrants, who had split between routes leading to far-apart points on the Mexican border, were sent back to Honduras, Giammattei said in a televised address on Sunday evening.
“Every human has the right to look for a better quality of life, but the fact of the matter is that we are living in a pandemic,” he said. “It’s our obligation to reduce the risk of infection and of another outbreak.”
The latest caravan came days after Guatemala relaxed measures to contain the spread of COVID-19, including opening of the country’s borders after a six-month closure.
President Giammattei, who was elected on a platform of confronting crime and improving security, was not the only one who promised the caravan would not make it far. The Mexican government deployed immigration officials and national guardsmen to Chiapas state, a threatening prospect for migrants who planned to cross the Suchiate River that divides the countries.
Migrant caravans such as these, which have been vilified by U.S. President Donald Trump and other leaders since they started happening in 2017, were started by those who wanted to avoid the risks and costs of being smuggled. People in the current caravan stated they were fleeing extreme poverty and rising levels of violence, which have been made worse by the strict measures taken to control COVID-19.
“The economy is bad. There's no money and no work. There's nothing in Honduras. Everyone is going to end up leaving," said Josue, age 32, who didn’t want to give his last name. Many citizens of Honduras have a lack of faith in the government of President Juan Orlando Hernandez, whose alleged collusion with drug traffickers spurred protests last year.
Ana Calix, 31, a Honduran woman who sought refuge in a shelter in the city of Tecún Uman on the Guatemalan border, was stunned by the militarized response to her and her daughter. “With Jesus’s name on my lips, I asked God not to allow a tragedy to happen to us,” she told VICE News. “It’s shameful that they closed the door on us. They want to send us back to our country after we’ve already suffered through so much.”
After hours waiting on the sidewalk of the shelter, in sight of Guatemalan soldiers manning jeeps and blocking the way forward, she decided to return home to Honduras.
The United States has previously recruited the governments of neighboring countries to limit the number of immigrants arriving at its southern border. Last year, Mexico deployed its National Guard and Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador signed “safe third country” agreements to take in asylum-seekers who had first sought safety in the U.S. but were denied the chance to apply.
These collaborations are not new. Under the administration of President Barack Obama, the U.S. funneled millions of dollars to Mexico to help militarize its border. But the pandemic has provided fodder for politicians to justify more extreme measures. Yesterday, news outlets reported that when U.S. Vice President Mike Pence ordered the border closed in March, he did not listen to officials who said that immigrants posed no public health risk.
Advocates fear that the current response to the caravan is a sign of a new era in approaches to immigration by governments in the region, and may signal more obstacles to come beyond the pandemic, even if the virus was the original justification.
“The southern border of the United States for Hondurans and Salvadorans is the…Guatemalan border,” Juan José Hurtado, the director of the Guatemalan advocacy organization Pop No’j. “Honduras and El Salvador [could eventually] become the cork for migrants that come from further south or from other continents.”
Caravans like the one that set out last week are the most visible movement of migrants in the region in recent years, but do not reflect the total numbers of migrants seeking to reach the U.S. Customs and Border Protection has apprehended over 300,000 Hondurans in the past three years. Between January and September, Mexico and the U.S. deported over 30,000 Hondurans, according to data from the Honduran government.
Many people continued to migrate independently, avoiding the highly visible caravans, despite the hardships of the pandemic.
Additional reporting provided by Isabel Mateos.
Cover: Honduran migrants who were heading to the U.S. sit in a Guatemalan army truck after they agreed to return to Honduras in Entre Rios, Guatemala, on October 2, 2020. Guatemala President Alejandro Giammattei ordered the detention of thousands of Hondurans who entered the country as part of a U.S.-bound migrant caravan. Photo by JOHAN ORDONEZ/AFP via Getty Images.