100s of Migrants Crossing Guatemala Face New Challenges

Jan 16, 2020
7:28 AM

Guatemalan National Police agents checks documents of a Honduras migrant trying to reach the United States, at El Cinchado, Guatemala, in the border with Honduras, Wednesday, January 15, 2020. Hundreds of mainly Honduran migrants started walking and hitching rides Wednesday from the city of San Pedro Sula and crossed the Guatemala border in a bid to form the kind of migrant caravan that reached the U.S. border in 2018. (AP Photo/Moisés Castillo)

By SONIA PÉREZ D., Associated Press

EL CINCHADO, Guatemala (AP) — Less-organized migrants, tighter immigration control by Guatemalan authorities and the presence of U.S. advisers have reduced the likelihood that the hundreds of migrants who departed Honduras will form anything like the cohesive procession the term “caravan” now conjures.

What awaits them along their journey has changed dramatically. Guatemalan officials are checking documents, Mexico’s National Guard has been deployed and if the migrants make it to the U.S. border, officials there will make them await their asylum cases in Mexico or send them to another country in the region they’re fleeing to apply for protection there.

The migrants who set out from a bus terminal in the northern Honduras city of San Pedro Sula early Wednesday quickly dispersed depending on their luck catching rides and the border crossing they were targeting.

For days, a rallying call for a new caravan circulated on social media. But the turnout while large did not compare to caravans of 2018 that drew the ire of U.S. President Donald Trump.

Caravans have tended to attract migrants with fewer resources —not enough money to pay a smuggler— and offer a greater level of security than traveling alone or in small groups.

Migrants interviewed said they knew of no plan to regroup along the way and form a caravan. Most were clustered along highways walking in groups of 20 or so.

A group of migrants walk on their way to the United States, near El Cinchado, Guatemala, Wednesday, January 15, 2020, on the border with Honduras. (AP Photo/Moisés Castillo)

Walter Martínez joined those assembled in San Pedro Sula because he figured it would be safer to travel with others. When he migrated the first time five years ago, his family paid for a smuggler. The now 18-year-old lived in Houston until he was deported in November.

Returning to Honduras gave him a chance to see his mother for the first time in years, but he found he knew almost no one else. He had been traveling all day Wednesday with a single mother and her baby who he met in San Pedro Sula. They were spending the night at a small shelter in Entre Ríos about 15 miles into Guatemala.

“I didn’t tell my little brothers because I was afraid of failing,” Martínez said. “The only thing motivating me is seeing my family.”

Farther along toward the Guatemalan capital, in the town of Morales, National Police were checking migrants’ documents at a roadblock. Associated Press journalists saw about 20 Honduran migrants being put onto a police vehicle to be driven back to the border because they had not registered with immigration officials there.

Guatemalan police officers were accompanied at the checkpoint by four agents from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Since about May, Homeland Security has deployed dozens of agents and investigators to Guatemala to work as “advisers” to the national police there and migration officials. They are also trying to disrupt human smuggling operations.

The move was an initial step in the agreement with Guatemala to send asylum-seekers there, and was part of an overall plan by DHS to help strengthen the country’s border security in an effort to stem the flow of migrants crossing into the U.S.

Officials have not given specifics on how many DHS personnel were on the ground for security reasons. It was an effort brokered by Kevin McAleenan, the former acting head of DHS.

Honduran migrants trying to reach the United States hold up Honduran flags while they are stopped by Guatemalan National Police after crossing the Honduran border, in Morales, Guatemala, Wednesday, January 15, 2020. Migrants in the group said they left Honduras very late Tuesday, around midnight. (AP Photo/Moisés Castillo)

Simultaneously, the U.S. government was pressuring Mexico to act. In late May, Trump threatened tariffs on all Mexican imports that would have been devastating. Mexico avoided them by agreeing to the expansion of the U.S. program known as “Remain in Mexico” that has led to more than 55,000 asylum seekers waiting out their cases in Mexico and to the deployment of a portion of its newly created National Guard to help stop migrants making their way through the country.

On Wednesday, Guatemala’s new President Alejandro Giammattei said Mexico Foreign Affairs Secretary Marcelo Ebrard told him Mexico will not let a migrant caravan pass. Mexico Interior Secretary Olga Sánchez Cordero warned of special operations and immigration agents.

Some migrants said they were aware that getting to the United States would be tough, but said they would try anyway.

“We aren’t living here, we’re just surviving,” said Elmer Garcia, 26, a migrant from the town of Comayagua who set out from San Pedro Sula. “So it doesn’t make much difference if you die there, or die here.”


AP writer Colleen Long in Washington contributed to this report.