Mexican president pushes trees-for-visas plan in call with Harris

By Nandita Bose and Raul Cortes

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador pitched a tree-planting jobs program in Central America that he said should lead to work visas in the United States, in immigration talks on Friday with U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris.

At the start of the call, Harris said the United States and Mexico must fight violence and corruption together, along with the root causes of migration in Central America.

Lopez Obrador said he had a specific proposal he wanted to discuss with Harris. He did not give details, but told reporters minutes earlier that the tree planting proposal was at the top of his mind.

Lopez Obrador, who touted his good relations with both the previous Trump administration and the current Biden administration, told reporters at his regular news conference Friday morning that he also favors safer migration.

“If there’s a regular, normal and orderly migratory flow, we can avoid the risks migrants take who are forced to cross our country,” he said.

The trees-for-visas proposal was met with some surprise when Lopez Obrador previously raised it at a Washington climate summit in April.

President Joe Biden has entrusted Harris with leading efforts to cut immigration from Mexico and Central America’s “Northern Triangle” countries – Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador – as the administration grapples with an increase in people crossing into the United States at the southern border.

Asked what Harris hoped to accomplish in the talks and what if any agreements were expected, Ricardo Zuniga, the U.S. special envoy on Central America’s Northern Triangle countries, said on Wednesday that the discussions would delve into immigration but also go beyond that issue.

“We’re undertaking these kinds of engagements with the view of the totality of our relationship with Mexico in mind,” Zuniga said. “Mexico is our largest trading partner… We’re deeply connected to them through economics and, through… our value chain and production chains.”

Harris has said she will visit Mexico and Guatemala on June 7-8 – her first foreign trip as vice president.

“No matter how much effort we put in on curbing violence, on providing disaster relief, on tackling food insecurity, on any event. We will not make significant progress if corruption in the region persists,” Harris said last week.

(Reporting by Nandita Bose in Washington; Additional reporting by Matt Spetalnick and Ted Hesson in Washington, and Raul Cortes Fernandez in Mexico City; Editing by Grant McCool and Alistair Bell)

U.S. continues plan to keep Central American migrants at bay

By Laura Gottesdiener, Frank Jack Daniel and Ted Hesson

CIUDAD HIDALGO, Mexico (Reuters) – ​In the days before U.S. President Joe Biden’s inauguration, Mexican soldiers patrolling the banks of the wide Suchiate River found few migrants amid the flow of trade across the water from Guatemala.

The likely explanation lay hundreds of miles to the south, where baton-wielding Guatemalan security forces beat back one the largest U.S.-bound migrant caravans ever assembled, according to a Reuters photographer and other witnesses.

“We’re scared,” Honduran migrant Rosa Alvarez told a reporter by telephone as she fled with many others toward the nearby hills, two young children in tow.

The operation was part of a U.S.-led effort, pursued by past American administrations and accelerated under former President Donald Trump, to pressure first the Mexican and then the Central American governments to halt migration well short of the U.S. border.

Under the Biden administration, the same general strategy is likely to continue, at least for the near term, according to six U.S. and Mexican sources with knowledge of diplomatic discussions.

Biden has been gradually unraveling many Trump-era immigration policies. Yet the new administration has encouraged Mexico and Guatemala to keep up border enforcement in their countries to stem northward migration, according to two Mexican officials and a U.S official, all speaking on condition of anonymity.

Diplomats and experts at immigration think tanks told Reuters that it would be politically expedient for the Biden administration to keep asylum seekers and other migrants from trekking en masse to the country’s southern border, especially as Mexico and the United States are being ravaged by the coronavirus pandemic and seeking to contain its spread.

They also said any rush to the U.S border could hand Biden’s political opponents ammunition to sink the rest of his immigration agenda, which includes providing a pathway to citizenship for immigrants already in the United States and reducing asylum application backlogs.

The Biden administration has not specifically endorsed militarized action, however, and has vowed to treat migrants with dignity.

“They want the relevant countries to have appropriate border controls,” said one former U.S. official familiar with the matter, who also spoke on condition of anonymity. “It doesn’t mean that they hold everyone back and beat back migrants. That’s not the objective here.”

A White House spokesperson declined to comment, referring Reuters to recent public remarks by Roberta Jacobson, a special assistant to the president specializing on the southwest border.

Jacobson told reporters on a recent call that the administration had not talked with Mexico specifically about how it deploys its security forces on its own soil. She added, however, that the two countries’ diplomats, as well as Biden and Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, had spoken about the need to jointly work on managing migration. She stressed the importance of addressing its root causes such as poverty and corruption.

Two other administration officials, including Juan Gonzalez, the president’s lead adviser on Latin American policy, recently underscored U.S. support for immigration enforcement well south of the U.S. border.

“I need to recognize here the work that (Guatemalan) President (Alejandro) Giammattei has done in managing the migration flows when the caravans started out,” Gonzalez told the El Salvadoran investigative website El Faro after the January crackdown.

The Mexican government has informed the new U.S. administration that it intends to keep current immigration enforcement measures in place because it is in Mexico’s sovereign interest to secure its own borders, one senior Mexican official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Biden already faces pressure from leading Republican lawmakers who accuse his administration of undermining immigration enforcement.

The new administration has “sketched out a massive proposal for blanket amnesty that would gut enforcement of American laws while creating huge new incentives for people to rush here illegally at the same time,” Republican Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky said on the Senate floor after Biden’s first day in office.

Biden officials have repeatedly pleaded with asylum seekers not to migrate now, stressing that the administration needs time to enact its domestic immigration changes.

At the same time, human rights advocates say leaning on Mexico and Central America to halt mass migration violates people’s rights to seek asylum. It also potentially subjects them to further violence and abuse on their journeys north, they say.

“We’ve seen time and time again that militarized approaches don’t really stop people from leaving,” said Daniella Burgi-Palomino, co-director of the Latin America Working Group, an organization dedicated to influencing U.S. policy.

‘REGIONAL CONTAINMENT’

About 8,000 people, including many women and children, joined January’s migrant caravan shortly before Biden’s inauguration, aiming to arrive in the United States after he took office.

The Trump administration had all but locked down the U.S. southern border and forced some asylum applicants to wait for months in Mexico. It also had prodded Mexican and Central American governments, largely through threats, to confront migrant caravans.

For instance, Mexico in 2019 deployed 20,000 National Guard and soldiers to police its borders to stave off Trump’s threats to impose tariffs on Mexican goods.

Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras coordinated a regional containment strategy ahead of the January caravan, Martin Alonso Borrego, director of Latin America and the Caribbean for Mexico’s foreign ministry, told Reuters.

After a Jan. 11 meeting among the countries, Guatemala declared emergency powers in nearly a third of its states and deployed up to 4,000 soldiers, police officers and air force personnel.

As Biden’s inauguration approached, rumors that a large migrant group was forming in Honduras prompted Mexico to beef up its military presence at its own southern border and send buses to Guatemala to aid in the return of caravan members.

The crackdown in mid-January provided some respite to Mexican troops on the Suchiate River. It also inspired fear among migrants.

Honduran migrant Alvarez and her family spent days in Guatemala’s hills trying to make their way toward the Mexican border. “We’re without money and food,” she said, before Reuters lost touch with her.

In the mid-January confrontation in Guatemala, the Reuters photographer and other witnesses saw a wall of security forces confront hundreds of migrants, beating some and deploying tear gas. Some migrants threw rocks. Guatemalan immigration authorities reported an unspecified number of injuries.

Guatemala’s human rights ombudsman Jordan Rodas said “it was outrageous to see the scenes of how the military brutally received our Honduran brothers and sisters.”

Immigration experts and people familiar with the Biden administration’s thinking say Washington may try to exercise more oversight down the line over how Mexican and Central American authorities conduct border containment operations.

Proponents of greater U.S. immigration control say it would be a mistake to pull back on the Trump-era pressure.

“It’s not clear how effectively Guatemala and Mexico can block them, especially if the numbers get bigger and especially if they are not pressured to do so by Biden,” said Jessica Vaughan, policy director for the Center for Immigration Studies, which favors lower levels of immigration.

(Laura Gottesdiener reported from Ciudad Hidalgo, Mexico, and Mexico City; Frank Jack Daniel from Mexico City, and Ted Hesson from Washington, D.C. Additional reporting by Luis Echeverria in Vado Hondo, Guatemala; Sofía Menchu in Guatemala City, Dave Graham and Lizbeth Diaz in Mexico City, and Mimi Dwyer in Los Angeles. Editing by Julie Marquis)

White House says ‘vast majority’ of migrants at U.S.-Mexico border will be turned away

By Ted Hesson

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The United States will turn away most migrants caught at its border with Mexico under a Trump-era policy aimed at limiting the spread of coronavirus and to give the Biden administration time to implement “humane” asylum processing systems, a White House official said on Wednesday.

The White House comments follow reports of the release of some migrant families into the United States and increasing pressure on President Joe Biden to reverse the restrictive policies of his predecessor, former President Donald Trump.

“Now is not the time to come,” White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said during a news briefing. “The vast majority of people will be turned away.”

U.S. officials in Texas last week released hundreds of Central American migrant families from custody amid concerns of overcrowding in Border Patrol facilities after local authorities in Mexico baulked at taking them back.

Biden has left in place a Trump-era COVID order called Title 42 that allows U.S. authorities to rapidly expel to Mexico migrants caught crossing the border illegally.

Carol Rose, executive director of the ACLU of Massachusetts, which filed a new lawsuit over the policy on Monday, said it uses a “guise” of public health to undermine legal protections for asylum seekers.

“Our fight for these families continues, until and unless the Biden administration ends this cruel practice once and for all,” Rose said in a statement.

The nascent Biden administration also faces pressure from congressional Democrats for its deportation practices.

A group of 12 Democratic lawmakers led by Representative Mondaire Jones of New York sent a letter to Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas on Monday criticizing recent deportations of Haitian immigrants.

The lawmakers said the removals appeared to go against Biden administration enforcement priorities outlined in a Jan. 20 memo and that it appeared immigration officials were “disparately targeting Black asylum-seekers and immigrants.”

(Reporting by Ted Hesson in Washington; Additional reporting by Mimi Dwyer in Los Angeles,; Editing by Ross Colvin and Alistair Bell)

COVID-19 tests: Central America’s latest tool to stop migrant caravans

By Sofia Menchu and Lizbeth Diaz

GUATEMALA CITY (Reuters) – As the first groups from Central America headed toward the Guatemalan border on Thursday as part of a caravan aiming to reach the United States, regional governments are using coronavirus measures as the latest tool to curtail migration.

Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador and Mexico issued a joint declaration this week imposing coordinated health measures to deter migration, including requirements to produce negative coronavirus tests at border checkpoints.

The tightening by Mexican and Central American authorities, coupled with pandemic-linked U.S. border restrictions in place since March, represent a sweeping effort to use public health regulations to deter movement along one of the world’s busiest migration routes at a time when a fierce second wave of coronavirus is sweeping the region.

In Mexico, the pandemic has killed nearly 137,000 people and the capital’s hospitals are spiking with COVID-19 cases.

This week’s caravan, slated to depart Honduras on Friday, would be the first of the year.

Yet, Central American and Mexican authorities are stepping up efforts to stop migrants well before the U.S. border, which will likely be a relief for Biden, whose aides have privately expressed concerns about the prospect of a growing numbers of migrants seeking to enter the United States in the early days of his administration.

On Thursday, Guatemala cited the pandemic in order to declare emergency powers in seven Guatemalan border provinces migrants frequently transit through en route to the Mexican border. The measures limit public demonstrations and allow authorities to disperse any public meeting, group or demonstration by force.

Honduras and Guatemala have also announced they will deploy thousands of soldiers to preemptively stop caravan members not complying with health regulations.

“We barely have food to eat, how do they think we are going to pay for these (coronavirus) tests?” said 29-year-old Ulises Santos from El Salvador, who is hoping to join the caravan.

Central America is reeling from economic crises, high rates of violence, and the devastating fallout of two major hurricanes that battered the region in November.

Migration experts say the public health measures are part of a broader effort by Central American and Mexican authorities, under pressure from Washington, to stop migrants before they reach U.S. territory.

“The U.S. border is moving further and further south,” said renowned Honduran human rights activist Ismael Moreno.

“The goal (of local police) is to stop migrants, whether through repression, threats, extortion, or requirements to present a COVID-19 test.”

(Reporting by Lizbeth Diaz in Mexico City and Sofia Menchu in Guatemala, additional reporting by Gustavo Palencia in Honduras, Jose Torres in Tapachula, Laura Gottesdiener in Monterrey; editing by Jonathan Oatis and Diane Craft)

Honduras hurricanes push thousands into homelessness

By Jose Cabezas

SAN PEDRO SULA, Honduras (Reuters) – Willian Castro and his family huddled on the roof of a banana packing plant for three days as Hurricane Eta raged last month, seeking to escape the torrential rains and floods that swept through his home and thousands of others.

His city of San Pedro Sula in northern Honduras was one of the areas worst hit by Eta and Hurricane Iota, which struck just two weeks later, deepening the economic hardship caused by the coronavirus pandemic in Central America.

Castro, 34, worked as a barber from his home, which was destroyed in the storms. He is now considering following thousands of Hondurans before him who saw emigration north as a way out of poverty.

“We will have to start over,” he said. “We can’t do it alone. If not, I’ll have to think about what many have done in the past, go to the United States.”

For now, Castro is living in a friend’s house near San Pedro Sula. Private organizations have given his family food, and neighbors who receive remittances from relatives in the United States have also helped.

“The government has not given us anything,” Castro said.

Julissa Mercado, a spokeswoman for government disaster agency COPECO, said the area around San Pedro Sula received food aid, but that it was inevitable that some people would say they had not received assistance.

Nationwide, some 4.5 million people – half the Honduran population – have been impacted by the hurricanes and their aftermath, including landslides and rain that submerged entire communities, the government said. More than 85,200 homes were damaged and 6,100 destroyed.

In Castro’s old neighborhood, the accumulated rainwater is a meter high in some areas, and downed power poles and trees, furniture and appliances still clutter the streets.

Some 95,000 people in San Pedro Sula have taken refuge in shelters. Thousands of others sleep each night in flimsy sheds made of wood and plastic sheets, on sidewalks or under bridges.

President Juan Orlando Hernandez has called for help from other nations. “It’s the worst disaster that we have experienced in the history of the Republic of Honduras,” he said on Thursday at an event recognizing first responders.

Even before the twin storms, which also killed 100 people, Honduras was expecting an economic contraction of 10.5% this year due to the pandemic.

“After losing their homes, assets and even their jobs, people who were already poor are now even worse off,” said Nelson Garcia, director of the Mennonite Social Action Commission (CASM), a human rights organization.

(Reporting by Jose Cabezas and Gustavo Palencia; Writing by Adriana Barrera, Editing by Daina Beth Solomon and John Stonestreet)

Death toll from Iota slowly rises in Central America amid ongoing rescue efforts

By Gustavo Palencia and Ismael Lopez

TEGUCIGALPA/MEXICO CITY (Reuters) – The death toll from storm Iota is slowly rising in Central America as authorities on Thursday said they’d recovered more bodies buried in landslides triggered by catastrophic flooding that swept through the already waterlogged region earlier this week.

Nearly 40 people were killed across Central America and Colombia, and the toll is expected to rise as rescue workers reach isolated communities. Most of the deaths have occurred in Nicaragua and Honduras.

The strongest storm on record to hit Nicaragua, Iota struck the coast late on Monday as a Category 4 hurricane. It inundated low-lying areas still reeling from the impact two weeks ago of Eta, another major hurricane that killed dozens of people in the region.

On Thursday morning, Honduran authorities raised the death toll to 14 after confirming that eight members of two families, including four children, were killed when a landslide buried their homes in a village in a mountainous region populated by indigenous Lencas near the border with El Salvador.

In Nicaragua, where a total of 18 people have been confirmed dead, rescue efforts continue after a landslide in the north of the country killed eight people, with more missing.

While Iota largely dissipated over El Salvador on Wednesday, authorities struggled to cope with the fallout from days of heavy rain.

Numerous villages from northern Colombia to southern Mexico saw record rainfall swell rivers and trigger mudslides. Cities like the Honduran industrial hub of San Pedro Sula were also hit hard, with the city’s airport completely flooded and jetways looking more like docks, video posted on social media showed.

Some 160,000 Nicaraguans and 70,000 Hondurans have been forced to flee to shelters.

Experts say the destruction caused by the unprecedented 2020 hurricane season in Central America could spur more migration out of the region, which is coping with insecurity and an economic crisis triggered by coronavirus pandemic-related lockdowns imposed earlier this year.

(Reporting by Gustavo Palencia in Tegucigalpa and Ismael Lopez in Mexico City; Additional reporting by Wilmer Lopez in Puerto Cabezas, Sofia Menchu in Guatemala City and Nelson Renteria in San Salvador; Writing by Laura Gottesdiener and David Alire Garcia; Editing by Jonathan Oatis)

Storm Iota breaks up over El Salvador but leaves major flood risk

PUERTO CABEZAS, Nicaragua (Reuters) – Storm Iota unleashed flash floods in areas already waterlogged with rain, forcing tens of thousands of people across Central America to flee their homes with a death toll feared to be over 20 by Wednesday morning.

The strongest storm on record ever to hit Nicaragua, Iota struck the coast late on Monday, bringing winds of nearly 155 miles per hour (249 kph) and inundating villages still reeling from the impact two weeks ago of Eta, another major hurricane.

Iota had largely dissipated over El Salvador by Wednesday morning, but authorities across Nicaragua and Honduras were still battling to cope with the devastating flooding the weather front had left behind in the deeply impoverished region.

Six people in Nicaragua and three others across Central America and the Caribbean had been confirmed dead by Tuesday evening.

Nicaraguan media said a landslide had killed at least 15 other people in the north of the country. Many more were still missing and feared lost, according to the reports.

In Honduras, more than 71,000 people are in shelters, and dozens of rivers and streams burst their banks, flooding nearby streets and highways, authorities said.

Despite the dissolution of Iota, the U.S. National Hurricane Center said the storm’s remnants could trigger life-threatening flash flooding, river flooding and mudslides across parts of Central America through Thursday.

Authorities in El Salvador have reported one death related to the storm so far, with hundreds more people in shelters.

The remnants of Iota were drifting west toward the Pacific by mid-morning on Wednesday, the Miami-based NHC said.

(Reporting by Wilmer Lopez in Puerto Cabezas, Ismael Lopez in Mexico City, Gustavo Palencia in Tegucigalpa, Sofia Menchu in Guatemala City, Nelson Renteria in San Salvador; Writing by Laura Gottesdiener; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

Migrant smugglers see boost from U.S. pandemic border policy

By Laura Gottesdiener and Sarah Kinosian

MONTERREY, Mexico (Reuters) – These days, Martin Salgado’s migrant shelter in the city of San Luis Rio Colorado on Mexico’s border with the United States feels more like an hourly hotel. His guests, many of them from Central America, often don’t even bother to spend the night.

Salgado said he has never seen people cycle through as repeatedly as he has in recent months, after the United States began expelling almost all migrants caught on the Mexican border rather than returning them to their homelands. Now, human smugglers often attempt to get migrants back across the border the very same day they are deported, he said.

Previously, Central American migrants apprehended at the border would be processed in the U.S. immigration system and would often be held for weeks, if not months, before being deported back to their home country.

“We never saw this before,” said Salgado, who runs the shelter near Arizona’s western limits founded by his mother in the 1990’s. Some Central Americans who arrive at the shelter after being deported “eat, bathe, and suddenly they disappear.”

U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration in March announced that it would begin to quickly expel nearly all migrants caught at the border under the authority of an existing federal public health act, known as Title 42, saying the move was necessary to prevent coronavirus spreading into the United States.

But the order appears to be having unintended effects.

It’s led to an increase in repeated border crossing attempts, data from U.S. Customs and Border Protection shows. And it’s benefiting the illegal networks that move people from Central America to the United States, according to interviews with more than a dozen migration experts, shelter directors, immigrant advocates and human smugglers.

That is because U.S. authorities are depositing the migrants on the border, rather than returning them home, which allows smugglers to eliminate some of the costs of repeat border crossings, said three smugglers working with transnational networks. The price migrants pay smugglers, which can be $7,000, or double that, often includes two or three attempted border crossings to offset the risks of being intercepted by Mexican or U.S. authorities, according to the three smugglers, as well as migration experts.

Not all migrants travel with smugglers, but even those braving the dangerous journey alone or in small groups often turn to coyotes at the border for the final stretch of the journey. Since they too are now being returned at the Mexican border when caught they now often pay for a second or third try, in another boon for the smuggling networks, said migrant experts and a guide tied to a smuggling network in the Sonora region.

U.S. border officials say the program, which has resulted in migrants being returned in an average of less than two hours, is crucial for protecting U.S. agents, health care workers and the general public from COVID-19 by avoiding the potential spread of coronavirus if migrants were apprehended, processed, and then sent to U.S. detention centers, as per previous policy.

“It would take just a small number of individuals with COVID-19 to infect a large number of detainees and CBP personnel and potentially overwhelm local healthcare systems along the border,” the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) said in a statement.

Joe Biden clinched the U.S. presidency following the Nov. 3 election, though Trump has not acknowledged defeat and has launched an array of lawsuits to press claims of election fraud for which he has produced no evidence. The president elect has not laid out specific plans about the Title 42 program. A senior advisor to the Biden campaign in August told Reuters that Biden would look to public health officials for guidance on pandemic-related border closures.

“MAKING MORE MONEY”

Seeking safe passage on the perilous trek north, migrants often pay thousands of dollars to smugglers – known as ‘coyotes’ – linked to gangs that control territory in Mexico.

The three men who identified themselves as smugglers from different transnational networks told Reuters they save about $1,000 or more each time U.S. Border Patrol expels one of their Central American clients at the Mexican border rather than returning them back by plane to their home countries.

“It’s great for us,” said Antonio, a Salvadoran smuggler who is part of a network that he said charges migrants $14,000 a head for three runs at getting from Central America to the United States.

Antonio, like the others involved in the smuggling trade that Reuters interviewed, declined to give his last name.

He said his network spends at least $800 per migrant paying off drug cartels for the right to transit through their turf, then there are additional costs such as food, shelter, transportation, and occasional bribes to Mexican authorities.

In the past, when Central American migrants were caught by U.S. Border Patrol and sent home, his network would have to pick up that tab again on migrants’ second or third attempts.

Mexico’s immigration agency in August vowed to “eradicate the collusion between public servants and human smugglers” as it ousted hundreds of officials for work-related offenses.

Pablo, a Guatemalan who ferries migrants across Guatemala’s border into Mexico, estimated that the network he works for saves at least $1,300 for every Central American who is returned at the U.S. border rather than sent back to their homeland.

“We’re making more money because we don’t have to pay the mafia again in Mexico,” he said. “So, there’s an advantage.”

REPEATED ATTEMPTS

Migration numbers are returning to pre-pandemic levels, following steep declines this spring after Central American countries slammed their borders shut in an effort to halt the spread of coronavirus. The U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency said it conducted nearly 55,000 expulsions and apprehensions of migrants at the southwest border in September. That is more than triple the figure for April and is slightly higher than the 40,507 a year earlier, according to CBP data.

And, apprehensions and expulsions continued to climb in October, said a U.S. official with knowledge of the numbers.

Still, migration numbers for the 12-month period ended in September were down from the previous year. The Title 42 order does not change deportation policy for Mexicans, who made up about two thirds of people expelled by the United States during August and September, according to the CBP. Hondurans, Guatemalans, and Salvadorans account for the next three largest groups.

Meanwhile, the number of repeated attempts has sharply increased, indicating that fewer people are migrating than last year but more of those who are trying to cross the border multiple times.

Between April and September, the proportion of people caught crossing the border more than once surged to 37%, up from 7% for the 12-month period ended in September 2019, according to the CBP.

The president of the Border Patrol union in Laredo Texas, border agent Hector Garza, said the Title 42 order was helping limit the exposure of the border workforce to COVID-19 and avoid overwhelming local hospitals in communities in Texas, which are already experiencing a surge of coronavirus cases.

“But with any benefit there is a downside, and in this case, we’re seeing people coming back and forth, trying to cross multiple times within a 24-hour period,” he told Reuters.

In the border city of Ciudad Juarez on Oct. 31, across from the Texas city of El Paso, Cuban Alexander Garcia stood by the port of entry to the United States. Garcia, who identified himself as a doctor, said he had just been deported after his sixth attempt at crossing the border without authorization.

“They’re returning us in less than three hours!” exclaimed García. “We cross, and they just grab us and push us back into Juarez.”

U.S. Border Patrol Chief Rodney Scott, during a news conference last month, said the pandemic had reduced the ability and willingness of authorities to prosecute because detaining people potentially involved additional risk of spreading COVID-19 in the United States.

“IT MOTIVATES YOU”

About 125 miles east of Salgado’s shelter, Jesus, a guide linked to a local smuggling network, and his Guatemalan girlfriend, Yolanda, have been biding their time in a chilly trailer serving as a migrant stash house along the Mexican border.

They said nearby clashes between rival gangs have delayed Yolanda’s departure across the Sonoran desert into the United States.

But Jesus said he’s heartened by the new U.S. policy – and so are the town’s smugglers that he’s worked for over the years.

“It’s better because if people get caught, they come right back,” he said. “So it’s like, we’re still in business.”

Yolanda was also encouraged when, upon reaching the border, she found out that if she was caught, she would only be sent to Mexico, rather than likely being deported back home.

“It motivates you,” she said, explaining that she left Guatemala after she was forced to close her clothing shop when pandemic restrictions crippled the economy.

She racked up debts, fell behind on her mortgage, and lost her home, she said, joining a small but growing number of Central Americans fleeing the economic crisis triggered by pandemic-related restrictions across the region.

While Title 42 has encouraged some people to risk the crossing after being turned back, some human rights organizations say it erodes migrants’ rights because they are being rapidly returned to Mexico before having an opportunity to explain why they fled their countries or to present a case for why they would qualify for asylum under U.S. law.

CBP said in a statement the agency “remains committed to our obligations to provide safe haven to those who claim persecution.”

(Reporting by Laura Gottesdiener in Monterrey, Sarah Kinosian in Caracas, and Lizbeth Diaz in Mexico City; Additional reporting by Jose Luis Gonzalez in Ciudad Juarez; Editing by Dave Graham, Frank Jack Daniel and Cassell Bryan-Low)

Mexican president sees U.S. election link to migrant caravan

By Sofia Menchu and Lizbeth Diaz

GUATEMALA CITY/MEXICO CITY (Reuters) – Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador on Friday said he suspected an ulterior motive behind a caravan of more than 2,000 migrants from Central America that set out just a month before the U.S. presidential election.

Lopez Obrador, who has taken measures against illegal immigration to keep Mexico off U.S. President Donald Trump’s campaign agenda, said he suspected the caravan’s departure from Honduras on Thursday was timed to provoke.

“It is very weird, very strange,” the president said at a regular government news conference.

“It’s a matter that I believe is linked to the U.S. election,” he said, adding that he did not have “all the elements” to support his theory.

On Thursday, more than 2,000 migrants, many wearing face masks against the coronavirus, barged past armed Guatemalan troops at the border, with some saying they were seeking to escape poverty exacerbated by the global pandemic.

Pressure has been building in Central America, where months of strict lockdowns have devastated local economies and spread hunger, while restrictions on freedom of movement have slowed traditional flows of immigration toward the United States.

On Friday morning there were signs some caravan members were choosing to return home following threats of consequences from the Mexican and Guatemalan governments and after spending a night in the open because churches and other shelters remain closed because of coronavirus risks.

Guatemala’s government invoked special powers in much of the country on Thursday to give security forces more latitude to break up the group.

Mexico warned of prison sentences of up to 10 years for people who “put in danger of contagion the health of others” in a statement instructing officials to toughen health checks at entry points on the border with Guatemala.

(Reporting by Sofia Menchu and Lizbeth Diaz; Writing by Frank Jack Daniel; Editing by Steve Orlofsky)

Spain sentences Salvadoran ex-officer to 133 years in jail over priests’ massacre

MADRID (Reuters) – Spain’s High Court sentenced a former army colonel from El Salvador on Friday to 133 years in prison for the murder of five Spanish Jesuit priests in 1989 during the Central American country’s civil war.

Inocente Orlando Montano Morales, 77, was also found responsible by the judges for the murders of the priests’ housekeeper and her 15-year-old daughter, as well as a local Jesuit priest. The court could not convict him of these crimes because his extradition to Spain did not cover these cases.

The massacre was one of the most notorious acts of a decade-long civil war during which 75,000 people were killed and 8,000 went missing.

The judges said they found Montano Morales guilty of five counts of “murder of terrorist nature,” adding that the killings were committed by the state apparatus, making them what “is commonly known as terrorism implemented by the state”.

They added that the total maximum prison term is 30 years.

Montano Morales has been in custody since 2011 when he was arrested in the United States on immigration fraud charges. He was deported to Spain in 2017.

The Spanish government has indicted 20 former Salvadoran army officers for the killings of the priests, their housekeeper and her daughter. One of the priests, Father Ignacio Ellacuria, was a prominent critic of the U.S.-backed right-wing government.

The massacre occurred on Nov. 16, 1989, when a group of soldiers from the U.S.-trained Atlacatl Battalion entered the campus of the Central American University where Ellacuria was rector.

Ellacuria had advocated a negotiated settlement to the military-led junta government’s war against the left-wing Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN). International revulsion at the murders of the priests helped to push through such a solution, with the war ending in 1992.

(Reporting by Nathan Allen and Andrei Khalip; Editing by Ingrid Melander and Frances Kerry)