Thousands of US-bound Honduran migrants held up in Guatemala

Vado Hondo (Guatemala) (AFP) –


Thousands of Honduran migrants trying to reach the United States on a journey of thousands of kilometers through Central America on foot remained stuck in Guatemala on Monday, their advance stymied by security forces.

On the third day of their journey on Sunday, the group was met in the southeastern town of Vado Hondo, near the border with Honduras, with tear gas and batons wielded by police and soldiers with strict orders to stop anyone without travel documents or a negative coronavirus test.

An estimated 4,000 people remained in the north-bound caravan Monday, according to Guatemala migration authorities, of about 9,000 who had set out from Honduras since last Friday.

Hundreds dispersed in different directions after Sunday's confrontation with security forces, and more than 1,500 have returned to Honduras.

Those staying the course, including families with young children, spent a second night Sunday out of doors in Vado Hondo, less than 50 kilometers (31 miles) inside the Guatemala border.

Among them, 50-year-old Melvin Cabrera told AFP he had no intention of turning back.

"I am a welder, a carpenter, a bricklayer and more, but I cannot find work to take care of the family" in Honduras, he said.

Saying they are desperate to escape poverty, unemployment, gang and drug violence and the aftermath of two devastating hurricanes, the migrants aim to cross Guatemala and Mexico to the United States.

They are hoping for a warmer welcome, and a better life, in the America of President-elect Joe Biden after years of anti-immigrant rhetoric by Donald Trump.

- 'Rule of law' -

But the quest is likely to end in heartbreak for many, with Guatemala having deployed 5,000 soldiers along the arduous route, and Washington already having warned off the would-be asylum seekers.

Mark Morgan, acting commissioner of US Customs and Border Protection, has urged the migrants 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 recent statement.

Guatemala migration head Guillermo Diaz insisted Saturday the group "will not be able to pass", citing the Covid-19 global health crisis and necessary restrictions on movement.

According to the country's health ministry, 21 migrants who been tested along the route so far have tested positive for the coronavirus.

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

Faced with unlikely odds, and a journey further complicated by rugged, mountainous terrain north from Vado Hondo, many in the caravan are already starting to show signs of fatigue.

- Concern for migrants -

The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights has expressed "concern" over the forceful containment of the caravan at Vada Hondo, and urged Guatemala's security forces to handle the situation with minimum force.

But the Guatemalan government has denounced what it said was a violation of its national sovereignty, and urged Honduras to "contain the massive departure of its inhabitants."

Honduras has, in turn, complained about the way its citizens have been treated in Guatemala.

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

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 has characterized some immigrants from Mexico as "rapists" and criminals.