New caravan crosses Guatemala, first migrants enter Mexico

Guatemala City (AFP) –


A new caravan of Central American migrants trying to reach the United States made its way across Guatemala Thursday, with the first members crossing into southern Mexico.

Bundled up in the early morning cold of the Guatemalan capital, hundreds of mostly Honduran migrants set out on the next leg of their trek, hitching rides on passing trucks or walking toward the Mexican border, about 300 kilometers (190 miles) away.

Guatemalan authorities said around 2,000 migrants were taking part in the caravan, which set out Tuesday from Honduras with about half that number and has grown along the way.

It is smaller than the caravan that made international headlines last October and November. That group swelled to 7,000 people and triggered a firestorm of tweets from US President Donald Trump, who said it was full of "criminals" and "thugs" and deployed thousands of troops to the US-Mexican border to stop them.

A first group of some 200 migrants from the latest caravan entered Mexico around midday, filing across the bridge over the river that divides Tecun Uman, Guatemala from Ciudad Hidalgo, in southwestern Mexico.

There was no repeat of the chaos and violence that exploded when the October caravan crossed the same bridge. Then, migrants broke down border barriers and jumped into the Suchiate River to swim across when the Mexican authorities tried to stop them from entering en masse.

On the Guatemalan side, Mexican immigration officials broadcast a message to the hundreds of migrants gathered in a park waiting to cross: enter the country legally and we will let you continue on your way.

"The Mexican government has decided to give a humanitarian 'visitor card' to all individuals who enter the country in an orderly fashion," Mexican migration official Hector Aleman said into a microphone -- drawing applause from the migrants.

Such cards normally take 30 days to process, but Aleman said Mexico would issue them in just five days so the migrants could continue their journey.

Mexico's new government -- headed by anti-establishment leftist Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, who took office last month -- has vowed to treat Central American migrants more humanely than in the past.

But it has also insisted they enter the country legally, reinforcing security along the southern border.

- Long way to go -

Another caravan of about 200 migrants set out Wednesday from El Salvador and is poised to join up with the one from Honduras.

The migrants are mostly fleeing poverty and crime in Central America's "Northern Triangle" -- El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. Brutal street gangs have made the three countries among the most violent in the world.

Political upheaval has also played a part in the exodus, particularly in Honduras, where President Juan Orlando Hernandez won re-election in 2017 in a vote that was widely condemned as fraudulent.

"We're going through a tough crisis in Honduras. The politicians are all crooks," said 52-year-old farmer Genaro Hernandez, explaining his decision to leave.

Many of the migrants are traveling in families, often with small children.

Those who reached Mexico's southern border have covered about 700 kilometers so far. They have roughly 4,000 kilometers to go if they take the same route as the last caravan, to Tijuana, which sits across from San Diego, California.

Trump has cited the latest caravan in arguing for the wall he wants to build on the US-Mexican border. His dispute with Congress over the $5.7 billion he wants for the wall has led to the longest government shutdown in US history.

The October caravan largely dispersed after reaching Tijuana.

US Border Patrol agents fought back two attempts by the migrants to rush the border, firing tear gas to disperse them.

Some have since found work in Mexico, some crossed the border and filed asylum claims, and many returned home. About 400 remain in a shelter set up for them in Tijuana.

Local authorities said that shelter would be closed next Wednesday. Remaining migrants will receive help finding housing, they said.