‘There’s no food’: U.S.-bound migrant caravan hunkers down after Guatemala crackdown

By Luis Echeverria

VADO HONDO, Guatemala (Reuters) – Hundreds of mostly Honduran migrants huddled overnight on a highway in eastern Guatemala after domestic security forces used sticks and tear gas to halt the passage of a U.S.-bound caravan just days before U.S. President-elect Joe Biden takes office.

As many as 8,000 migrants, including families with young children, have entered Guatemala since Friday, authorities say, fleeing poverty and lawlessness in a region rocked by the coronavirus pandemic and back-to-back hurricanes in November.

“There’s no food or water, and there are thousands of children, pregnant women, babies, and they don’t want to let us pass,” said a Honduran stuck at the blockade who gave his name only as Pedro.

Guatemalan authorities said late on Sunday they have sent 1,568 migrants back home since Friday, the vast majority to Honduras. Nearly 100 were returned to El Salvador.

A Reuters witness said about 2,000 migrants were still camped out on the highway near the village of Vado Hondo, about 55 km (34 miles) from the borders of Honduras and El Salvador, after clashing with Guatemalan security forces on Sunday.

“We’re starving,” said one Honduran mother, stuck behind the cordon with her 15-year-old son, her daughter, 9, and her 4-year-old niece.

“All we have is water and a few cookies,” said the woman, who declined to give her name, but added that she and other travelers had formed a prayer circle as they camped out.

Other migrants evaded the gridlock by fleeing into the hills to continue onward to the border of Mexico, where the government has deployed police and National Guard troopers.

“We ran into the mountains because I’m traveling with my one-year-old,” said Diany Deras, another Honduran.

Mexico’s border with Guatemala was quiet.

“All is calm here,” said a National Guardsman in charge of a border crossing directly opposite Tecun Uman, Guatemala, where caravan leaders hope to cross into Mexico. He sought anonymity as he was not authorized to speak to media.

“I hope Guatemala contains them,” he added.

(Reporting by Luis Echeverria in Vado Hondo, Sofia Menchu in Guatemala City and Laura Gottesdiener in Tapachula; Writing by Laura Gottesdiener; Editing by Clarence Fernandez)

Guatemala detains hundreds of migrants at border as U.S.-bound caravan grows

By Gustavo Palencia and Sofia Menchu

TEGUCIGALPA (Reuters) – The Guatemalan military has detained hundreds of migrants at its border as thousands of Hondurans, including many families with young children, continued to walk north on Friday as part of a caravan hoping to reach the United States.

The Guatemalan military detained 600 migrants at the border crossing point in Corinto and transferred them to immigration authorities on Friday, according to military spokesman Ruben Tellez. Separately, Guatemalan authorities returned 102 Honduran migrants back to Honduras on Thursday, after the first groups in the caravan set off from San Pedro Sula.

The Red Cross estimates that up to 4,000 people could join the caravan, as Honduras reels from violence and an economy shattered by hurricanes and coronavirus lockdowns.

“We’re suffering from hunger,” Oscar Garcia told Reuters as he made his way toward the Guatemala border. The banana plantation worker said his home was destroyed in November’s hurricanes, and that he’s fleeing north hoping to earn enough to send money back to support his mother and his young daughter.

“It’s impossible to live in Honduras, there’s no work, there’s nothing,” he added.

The first migrant caravan of the year comes less than a week before U.S. President-elect Joe Biden takes office.

While Biden has promised a more humane approach to migration, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador and Mexico are coordinating their own security and public health measures aimed at curtailing irregular migration across the region.

That will likely be a relief for Biden, whose aides have privately expressed concerns about the prospect of 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 border provinces migrants frequently transit through en route to Mexico. The measures limit public demonstrations and allow authorities to disperse any public meeting, group or demonstration by force.

On Friday, Mexico also deployed soldiers and riot police to its border with Guatemala.

Central America is reeling from a growing hunger crisis in the devastating fallout of the hurricanes, as well as violence and the lockdown measures that disrupted the job market.

(Reporting by Gustavo Palencia in Honduras, Sofia Menchu in Guatemala, Lizbeth Diaz in Mexico City, Laura Gottesdiener in Monterrey and Jose Torres in Tapachula; Editing by Kenneth Maxwell and Steve Orlofsky)

Guatemalan families mourn death of children as hunger spreads

By Sofia Menchu

LA PALMILLA, Guatemala (Reuters) – Two-year-old Yesmin Anayeli Perez died this week of illnesses linked to malnutrition, the third small child to die from similar causes in an impoverished mountain village in eastern Guatemala within weeks, residents and health officials said.

Residents of the indigenous Mayan village, La Palmilla, and other parts of a region known as the Dry Corridor sunk deeper into poverty last year when economic damage wrought by droughts and two devastating hurricanes was compounded by the coronavirus lockdown.

The second of three children, Yesmin had a history of acute malnutrition, which causes rapid weight-loss and wasting, and for which she was hospitalized several times over the past year.

In the months before her death, Yesmin’s legs and arms were stick-like and her belly swollen by water retention, even though she had gained a little weight. Reuters visited her family in their home in October, where Yesmin, dressed in a purple t-shirt, was being fed a high protein mash by her mother.

In the early hours of Monday, Yesmin died, her eyes bulging and her frail body distorted by a persistent cough and long struggle with lung illness linked to her inadequate nutrition, her father Ignoja Perez told Reuters.

Just over half the normal weight for her age, she was suffering malnutrition and pneumonia made worse by the cold and damp weather that followed the hurricanes, local health official Santiago Esquivel said.

Sitting in front of her small coffin, in a home with a dirt floor and tin roof, her father said the family had been hopeful she would make a recovery.

“I bought her some vitamins on Sunday, to see if she would put on weight, we were going to start the treatment on Monday, with a spoonful,” Perez recalled. “But she got worse.”

Yesmin was buried on a hilltop along with some of her clothes, a bottle of water and a small, orange plastic drinking cup in a traditional ceremony on Tuesday.

The family had celebrated her second birthday with a bowl of chicken soup just a few weeks earlier.

The Guatemalan government denies that Yesmin was suffering malnutrition at the time of her death, or at any time during 2020. However, medical records reviewed by Reuters showed she was diagnosed as suffering from acute malnutrition at least until March.

Guatemala’s Food and Nutritional Security Secretariat said in a statement that Yesmin and her family had received support from authorities, in recognition that she had suffered malnutrition and lung problems at birth.

Asked why she was not classified as malnourished in 2020, the agency referred Reuters to the Health Ministry. The ministry did not respond to requests for comment.

TRAPPED BY POVERTY

Government data show acute malnutrition among the under-fives rose by 80% in Guatemala in 2020 compared to 2019.

The government said the jump was partly due to improved methodology. However, data gathered by Oxfam last year also showed large increases in families facing food shortages, including a four-fold jump in severe shortages in the province around La Palmilla.

At least 46 children under five died of hunger-related causes in 2020 in Guatemala, according to the government data, well below previous years. Ivan Aguilar, a humanitarian program coordinator based in Guatemala at Oxfam, said the drop appeared to be due to officials attributing deaths related to malnutrition to other causes, including the case of Yesmin.

Yesmin was the third young child to die in the village of around 3,000 people since October, local health official Esquivel said. Yesmin was buried a few feet away from another girl who died on Dec. 26.

The deaths are unusual even in a region that grew tragically accustomed to such deaths after drought destroyed crops every year for half of the past decade, Esquivel added.

“Sometimes a child would die, but not like this, one after the other,” he said.

The crisis is driving a new round of migration north.  But in La Palmilla and other villages in the eastern highlands, people said they lack the money to up and leave.

Without work for months during a lockdown from February, Perez borrowed money and sold his coffee crop, spending the little he raised to pay for Yesmin’s treatment in nearby city Zacapa.

The two hurricanes in November wiped out his field of beans, leaving only corn in the ground, and the walls of his mud-block house cracked with the rain, letting the winter chill inside.

“I wish I could go to the United States, but without money, we have to stay,” he said, looking down at his daughter’s still body.

(Reporting by Sofia Menchu; Writing by Stefanine Eschenbacher; Editing by Frank Jack Daniel and Rosalba O’Brien)

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)

Central American migrants clash with Mexican forces

By Roberto Ramirez

SUCHIATE RIVER, Guatemala/Mexico (Reuters) – Mexican security forces fired tear gas at rock-hurling Central American migrants who waded across a river into Mexico earlier on Monday, in a chaotic scramble that saw mothers separated from their young children.

The clashes between hundreds of U.S.-bound Central Americans and the Mexican National Guard underscores the challenge President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador faces to contain migration at the bidding of his U.S. counterpart Donald Trump.

The mostly Honduran migrants numbered around 500, according to Mexico’s National Migration Institute (INM). They were part of a group of several thousand people that had set off last week from Honduras, fleeing rampant gang violence and dire job prospects in their homeland.

Video footage showed scattered groups of migrants throwing rocks at a few members of the National Guard militarized police who were on the banks of the river attempting to thwart illegal crossings, while hundreds of others ran past into Mexico.

Five National Guard police were injured in the clashes, the INM said.

“We didn’t come to stay here. We just want to cross to the other side,” said Ingrid, 18, a Honduran migrant. “I don’t want to go back to my country because there is nothing there, just hunger.”

A Reuters witness spoke to at least two mothers whose young children went missing amid the chaos, as the migrants on Mexican soil scattered in an attempt to avoid being detained by Mexican officials.

The INM said it had detained 402 migrants and transferred them to immigration stations where they will receive food, water and shelter. The INM will return them to their home countries via airplane or bus if their legal status cannot be resolved.

A spokeswoman at the INM said the institute had no reports of children going missing amid the clashes.

The Reuters witness said that several kilometers from the border, Mexican immigration authorities had filled a bus and pickup trucks with detained migrants.

The Honduran Ambassador to Mexico, Alden Rivera, said that Mexican authorities have some 1,300 Hondurans in migration centers and will start deporting them back home by airplane and bus on Tuesday.

Trump has threatened to punish Mexico and Central American countries economically if they fail to curb migrant flows, resulting in a series of agreements aimed at making good on Trump campaign promises to curb immigration at the U.S.-Mexico border.

WADING ACROSS THE RIVER

Over the weekend, at least 2,000 migrants had been camped in the Guatemalan border town of Tecun Uman, opposite Ciudad Hidalgo on the Mexican side.

The migrants appeared to grow impatient on the bridge over the Suchiate River that connects the two countries, after some were denied permission to cross by assembled Mexican migration officials.

The INM said it informed the migrants it could not allow them to cross into Mexican territory to “transit” through and blamed the group’s organizers for “ignoring the risk to minors and at-risk people” by crossing the river.

Mexico has offered migrants work in the south, but those who do not accept it or seek asylum will not be issued safe conduct passes to the United States, and most will be deported, the interior ministry said.

Mexican authorities had already received nearly 1,100 migrants in the states of Chiapas and Tabasco, the ministry said on Sunday.

According to Guatemala, at least 4,000 people entered from Honduras since Wednesday, making for one of the biggest surges since three Central American governments signed agreements with the Trump administration obliging them to assume more of the responsibility for dealing with migrants.

(Reporting by Roberto Ramirez; Additional reporting by Dave Graham and Lizbeth Diaz in Mexico City; Writing by David Alire Garcia and Anthony Esposito; Editing by Bill Berkrot and Christopher Cushing)

Central American migrants ford river into Mexico, chuck rocks

By Roberto Ramirez

SUCHIATE RIVER, Guatemala/Mexico (Reuters) – Hundreds of Central Americans waded across a river into Mexico on Monday, some clashing with waiting security forces, in a new challenge for President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador’s efforts to contain migration at the bidding of the United States.

Scattered groups launched rocks at a few members of Mexico’s National Guard who were on the banks of the river attempting to thwart any illegal crossings, as hundreds of others ran past into Mexico, video footage of the scene showed.

The mostly Honduran migrants appeared to grow impatient on the bridge over the Suchiate River that connects the two countries, after some were denied permission to cross by assembled Mexican migration officials.

“We didn’t come to stay here, we just want to cross to the other side,” said Ingrid, 18, a Honduran migrant. “I don’t want to go back to my country because there is nothing there, just hunger.”

U.S. President Donald Trump has threatened to punish Mexico and Central American countries economically if they fail to curb migrant flows, resulting in a series of agreements aimed at taking pressure off the United States in absorbing the numbers.

At least 2,000 migrants had been camped in the Guatemalan border town of Tecun Uman, opposite Ciudad Hidalgo on the Mexican side.

Mexico has offered migrants work in the south, but those who do not accept it or seek asylum will not be issued safe conduct passes to the United States, and most will be deported, the interior ministry said.

The ministry said in a statement on Sunday that Mexican authorities had already received nearly 1,100 migrants in the states of Chiapas and Tabasco and set out various options to them in accordance with their migration status.

“However, in the majority of cases, once the particular migration situation has been reviewed, assisted returns will be carried out to their countries of origin, assuming that their situation warrants it,” the ministry said.

According to Guatemala, at least 4,000 people entered from Honduras since Wednesday, making for one of the biggest surges since three Central American governments signed agreements with the Trump administration obliging them to assume more of the responsibility for dealing with migrants.

In late 2018, a large caravan of migrants sought to break through the Tecun Uman border. At that time as well, many crossed via the Suchiate River dividing the two countries.

(Writing by David Alire Garcia in Mexico City. Additional reporting by Dave Graham in Mexico City; Editing by Frank Jack Daniel and Bernadette Baum)

U.S.-bound migrant caravan in tense standoff at border between Mexico and Guatemala

By Roberto Ramirez

TECUN UMAN, Guatemala (Reuters) – A large caravan of Central Americans was preparing to cross the Guatemalan border into Mexico on Monday, posing a potential challenge to the Mexican government’s pledge to help the United States contain mass movements of migrants.

The migrants were massed on a bridge connecting the two countries early on Monday morning in what appeared to be a tense standoff with Mexican migration officials and soldiers.

U.S. President Donald Trump has threatened to punish Mexico and Central American countries economically if they fail to curb migrant flows, resulting in a series of agreements aimed at taking pressure off the United States in absorbing the numbers.

Migrants crossed into Mexico in small groups during the weekend after Mexican security officials blocked an effort by some Central Americans to force their way through the border.

The bulk of at least 2,000 migrants remained in the Guatemalan border town of Tecun Uman, opposite the Mexican town of Ciudad Hidalgo, with some saying they planned to set off for Mexico en masse early on Monday, believing that they stood a better chance of making progress in a large caravan.

Mexico has offered migrants work in the south, but those who do not accept it or seek asylum will not be issued safe conduct passes to the United States, the interior ministry said.

The ministry said in a statement on Sunday afternoon that Mexican authorities had received nearly 1,100 migrants in the states of Chiapas and Tabasco and set out various options to them in accordance with their migration status.

“However, in the majority of cases, once the particular migration situation has been reviewed, assisted returns will be carried out to their countries of origin, assuming that their situation warrants it,” the ministry said.

According to Guatemala, at least 4,000 people have entered from Honduras since Wednesday, making for one of the biggest surges since three Central American governments signed agreements with the Trump administration obliging them to assume more of the responsibility for dealing with migrants.

Mexico has so far controlled the border at Tecun Uman more successfully than in late 2018, when a large caravan of migrants sought to break through there. Many later crossed into Mexico via the Suchiate River dividing the two countries.

(Writing by Dave Graham; Editing by Nick Zieminski and Diane Craft)

Migrant surge into Guatemala reaches 3,500, heads for Mexico

Migrant surge into Guatemala reaches 3,500, heads for Mexico
By Sofia Menchu and Drazen Jorgic

GUATEMALA CITY/MEXICO CITY (Reuters) – More than 3,500 Central Americans had poured into Guatemala by Friday in U.S.-bound gatherings known as caravans, officials said, posing a headache for the leaders of Guatemala and Mexico amid fierce U.S. pressure to curb migration.

President Donald Trump has repeatedly urged the region to prevent such groups of migrants reaching Mexico’s border with the United States, and the latest exodus from Honduras that began on Wednesday has been accompanied by U.S. border agents.

The migrants, some travelling in groups as small as a dozen people while others formed caravans of more than 100, said they planned to unite at the Guatemalan border city of Tecun Uman before crossing together into Ciudad Hidalgo, Mexico.

Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador said his government was monitoring the situation as the migrants approached, saying there were 4,000 jobs available on the southern border, as well as shelters and medical help.

“We are keeping an eye on everything,” Lopez Obrador said during a regular press conference.

Lopez Obrador did not say if Mexico would seek to keep the migrants in the southern part of the country. Most Central Americans who leave their countries escaping poverty and violence are eager to make their way towards the United States.

Under U.S. pressure, Mexican security forces have increasingly broken up large groups as they head north.

On Wednesday, Guatemala’s new President Alejandro Giammattei suggested Mexico would prevent any caravans from reaching the United States.

About a thousand migrants entered Guatemala on Thursday, with local officials busing some of the migrants back to the Honduran border to fill out official paperwork, said Alejandra Mena, a spokeswoman for Guatemala’s migration institute.

“We haven’t returned people from Guatemala and we have a total of about 3,543 people who have so far crossed the border,” Mena said.

At least 600 Honduran migrants spent the night under tents in a shelter in Guatemala City on Thursday night, sleeping on mattresses.

“Now we have more experience, and we know how to treat them,” said Father Mauro Verzeletti, director of the Migrant House shelter in Guatemala City.

Guatemala’s former President Jimmy Morales agreed last July with the U.S. government to implement measures aimed at reducing the number of asylum claims made in the United States by migrants fleeing Honduras and El Salvador, averting Trump’s threat of economic sanctions.

New leader Giammattei said a top priority would be reviewing the text of migration agreements made with the United States.

(Reporting by Sofia Menchu in Guatemala City and Drazen Jorgic in Mexico City; Editing by Dave Graham and Frances Kerry)

Over 1,000 migrants enter Guatemala, caravan heads toward Mexico

By Sofia Menchu

GUATEMALA CITY (Reuters) – At least 1,300 people have entered Guatemala in a new U.S.-bound caravan from Honduras, authorities said on Thursday, putting pressure on the region to satisfy Trump administration demands to contain northbound illegal immigration.

Mexico’s government is bracing for the arrival of hundreds of Central Americans on its southern border in coming days, an event likely to be closely monitored by the U.S. government, which has made curbing illegal immigration a priority.

Arriving in Guatemala chiefly via crossings on its northern border with Honduras, around 1,350 migrants had been registered entering legally by late morning, said Alejandra Mena, a spokeswoman for Guatemala’s National Migration Institute.

U.S. President Donald Trump has put Mexico and Central American nations under pressure to accept a series of migration agreements that aim to shift the burden of dealing with asylum-seekers on to them, and away from the United States.

The bulk of migrants caught on the U.S. border with Mexico depart from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador seeking to escape chronic poverty or gang violence.

Unlike Guatemala, Mexico has refused to become a so-called safe third country obliging it to accept asylum claims from migrants that set foot on its soil. Still, Trump has threatened trade sanctions if it does not contain the flow of people.

Guatemala’s new president, Alejandro Giammattei, said on Wednesday that Mexico’s Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard had told him Mexico would not allow the new caravan to pass.

Mexico’s foreign ministry has not responded directly to that assertion. However, Interior Minister Olga Sanchez said the border would be policed and that the Mexican government would not be issuing any visas of safe conduct to the migrants.

“That’s very clear,” she told reporters.

According to communications shared by some of the migrants on messaging service WhatsApp, some of the Hondurans said that they planned to meet in the town of Santa Elena in northern Guatemala and head for the Mexican border on Saturday.

Under a freedom of movement accord between northern Central American countries, Giammattei said he would let the caravan enter Guatemala provided people had the necessary paperwork.

Some migrants were turned back at the Guatemalan border on Wednesday and Honduran police fired tear gas on others who tried to cross without going through migration checks.

(Additional reporting by Lizbeth Diaz in Mexico City and Gustavo Palencia in Tegucigalpa; Writing by Dave Graham; Editing by David Gregorio)

U.S. asylum seekers sent to Guatemala preferring to return to home countries

U.S. asylum seekers sent to Guatemala preferring to return to home countries
By Sofia Menchu

GUATEMALA CITY (Reuters) – U.S. asylum seekers sent to Guatemala under a new Trump administration program have mostly preferred to return to their country of origin instead of staying in the Central American nation, Guatemala’s Interior Minister said on Thursday.

The new effort began after the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump brokered an agreement with the Guatemalan government in July. The deal will allow U.S. immigration officials to force migrants requesting asylum at the U.S.-Mexican border to apply for asylum in Guatemala first.

The program initially will be applied at a U.S. Border Patrol station in El Paso, Texas. The first phase will target adults from Honduras and El Salvador.

Interior Minister Enrique Degenhart said that a total of 24 people have been sent to Guatemala under the program.

Of those “only two have requested asylum (in Guatemala),” Degenhart said during a visit by Acting U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf.

While the asylum agreement with Guatemala will start slowly, the Trump administration intends to make few exceptions. Federal immigration officials have been instructed not to apply the program to unaccompanied children, migrants with valid U.S. travel documents, or cases of public interest, according to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services officials and documents.

“For those in the region who may be weighing the option of taking the dangerous journey north, I’d strongly urge you against it,” said Wolf, in prepared remarks. “Simply requesting asylum at the Southwest border no longer guarantees release into the interior like it once did. We have ended catch and release,” Wolf added.

(Reporting by Sofia Menhu; Writing by Anthony Esposito; Editing by Sandra Maler)