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)

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)

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)

High-tech mapping, apps fight deadly dengue outbreak in Honduras – medical charity

High-tech mapping, apps fight deadly dengue outbreak in Honduras – medical charity
By Anastasia Moloney

BOGOTA (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – High-tech mapping and mobile phone apps are being used to combat dengue fever in Honduras as the Central American nation struggles to fight the worst outbreak of the mosquito-borne disease on record, medical charity MSF said on Thursday.

Honduras has one of the Americas’ highest incidence rates of dengue, with some 92,000 suspected cases of the infectious disease and 250 deaths recorded this year, according to the Pan-American Health Organization (PAHO).

Across the Americas, more than 2.7 million people have caught the virus and 1,206 have died so far in 2019, making this year’s dengue fever outbreak the highest on record in the region, according to latest PAHO figures.

Medical charity Medicins Sans Frontiers (MSF) said it is using GIS mapping technology and a mobile phone app as key tools to combat the virus and plan their work.

The technology allows health workers to identify dengue hotspots and direct prevention and awareness-raising campaigns to the most-affected areas.

“It allows you to see the evolution of the epidemic in each neighborhood and city and all over the country per day, per week,” said Pascal Olivo, MSF logistics coordinator for Mexico, Honduras and Guatemala.

“We have adapted our strategy accordingly because we can see the evolution of the epidemic on the maps,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Using a mobile app to record data, about 20 MSF health workers have been asking residents up to 10 questions about the dengue virus and what is being done to prevent its spread in their neighborhoods.

Questions include whether residents have cleaned water tanks and buckets in their homes – ideal breeding grounds for mosquitoes – if and when local authorities have carried out fumigation, or whether any relative has caught dengue.

The data, along with the GIS maps produced based on data collected by MSF, health authorities and public hospitals, allows health workers to build a timely geographic overview of areas where the virus is most acute and in need of targeting.

As the region faces new mosquito-borne outbreaks, there is a growing need to find new ways to monitor and reduce the spread of infectious diseases like dengue and Zika, which includes using tech and giving affected communities tech-based solutions.

Aid groups are accordingly embracing technology from geographic information system (GIS) mapping tools, drones and satellite imagery to map areas affected by conflict, disease outbreaks and natural disasters, along with mass vaccination programs.

“In the past two to three years we have seen an evolution in GIS, and it’s used by MSF for almost all emergencies,” Olivo said.

(Reporting by Anastasia Moloney @anastasiabogota, Editing by Chris Michaud. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women’s and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights, and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)

Migrant deaths rise among Venezuelans, Central Americans: U.N.

FILE PHOTO: The U.S.-Mexico border is seen near Lukeville, Pima County, Arizona, U.S., September 11, 2018. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson/File Photo

By Stephanie Nebehay

GENEVA (Reuters) – At least 380 Latin American migrants have died on their journeys this year, many of them Venezuelans drowning in the Caribbean or Central Americans perishing while trying to cross the U.S.-Mexico border, the U.N. migration agency said on Tuesday.

The toll, 50 percent more than the 241 recorded as of mid-June 2018, also coincides with tightened security along the U.S. southern border, which often leads migrants to turn to underground criminal smugglers and take riskier routes, it said.

President Donald Trump has made reducing illegal migration one of his signature policy pledges. His administration on Monday cut hundreds of millions of dollars in aid to El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, after Trump blasted the three Central American countries because thousands of their citizens had sought asylum at the U.S. border with Mexico.

“This month has been marked by several tragedies on the U.S.-Mexico border, where at least 23 people have died since May 30 May, that is more than one per day,” spokesman Joel Millman of the International Organization for Migration told a briefing.

IOM figures show that so far, 144 migrants are known to have died in Mexico, 143 in the Caribbean, 66 along Mexico’s southern border with Central America and 27 in South America.

A further 42 reported deaths were under investigation in Mexico, and of several dozen more refugees and migrants crossing the Darien jungle in Panama, he added.

“So we are seeing a level of fatality that we haven’t seen before. We caution that with the summer months just beginning, with the intense heat that brings, we can expect it to get worse,” Millman said.

Four million Venezuelans have fled their homeland, most of them since an economic and humanitarian crisis began in 2015, the U.N. refugee agency says. Most went overland to Colombia, Peru, Ecuador and Brazil.

But in images reminiscent of desperate Cubans fleeing their homeland in decades past, Venezuelans increasingly are taking to the sea in rickety boats.

The overall toll includes more than 80 Venezuelans who have died or disappeared in three shipwrecks in the Caribbean in the past two months, Millman said.

UNHCR spokesman Babar Baloch called for better search and rescue operations to save Venezuelans fleeing via the Caribbean.

“As Venezuelans continue to use dangerous sea routes to leave their country, the U.N. refugee agency is calling for more coordinated search and rescue efforts to prevent further loss of life,” Baloch said.”It is also absolutely vital that people are able to access safe territory in ways that do not require them to risk their lives,” he said.

(Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

First asylum seekers returned from Mexico for U.S. court hearings

Honduran migrant Ariel, 19, who is waiting for his court hearing for asylum seekers returned to Mexico to wait out their legal proceedings under a new policy change by the U.S. government, is pictured after an interview with Reuters in Tijuana, Mexico March 18, 2019. Picture taken March 18, 2019. REUTERS/Jorge Duenes

By Lizbeth Diaz and Mica Rosenberg

TIJUANA/NEW YORK (Reuters) – A group of asylum seekers sent back to Mexico was set to cross the border on Tuesday for their first hearings in U.S. immigration court in an early test of a controversial new policy from the Trump administration.

The U.S. program, known as the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP), turns people seeking protection in the United States around to wait out their U.S. court proceedings in Mexican border towns. Some 240 people – including families – have been returned since late January, according to U.S. officials.

Court officials in San Diego referred questions about the number of hearings being held on Tuesday to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, which did not respond to a request for comment. But attorneys representing a handful of clients were preparing to appear in court.

Migrants like 19-year-old Ariel, who said he left Honduras because of gang death threats against himself and his family, were preparing to line up at the San Ysidro port of entry first thing Tuesday morning.

Ariel, who asked to use only his middle name because of fears of reprisals in his home country, was among the first group of asylum-seeking migrants sent back to Mexico on Jan. 30 and given a notice to appear in U.S. court in San Diego.

“God willing everything will move ahead and I will be able to prove that if I am sent back to Honduras, I’ll be killed,” Ariel said.

While awaiting his U.S. hearing, Ariel said he was unable to get a legal work permit in Mexico but found a job as a restaurant busboy in Tijuana, which does not pay him enough to move out of a shelter.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and other advocacy groups are suing in federal court to halt the MPP program, which is part of a series of measures the administration of President Donald Trump has taken to try to curb the flow of mostly Central American migrants trying to enter the United States.

The Trump administration says most asylum claims, especially for Central Americans, are ultimately rejected, but because of crushing immigration court backlogs people are often released pending resolution of their cases and live in the United States for years. The government has said the new program is aimed at ending “the exploitation of our generous immigration laws.”

Critics of the program say it violates U.S. law and international norms since migrants are sent back to often dangerous towns in Mexico in precarious living situations where it is difficult to get notice about changes to U.S. court dates and to find legal help.

Immigration advocates are closely watching how the proceedings will be carried out this week, especially after scheduling glitches created confusion around three hearings last week, according to a report in the San Diego Union-Tribune.

The Executive Office for Immigration Review (EOIR), which runs U.S. immigration courts under the Department of Justice, said only that it uses its regular court scheduling system for the MPP hearings and did not respond to a question about the reported scheduling problems.

Gregory Chen, director of government relations at the American Immigration Lawyers Association, said there are real concerns about the difficulties of carrying out this major shift in U.S. immigration policy.

“The government did not have its shoes tied when they introduced this program,” he said.

(Reporting by Lizbeth Diaz in Tijuana and Mica Rosenberg in New York; Editing by Bill Trott)

Mexico prepares for arrival of next Central American migrant caravan

FILE PHOTO: Migrants, part of a caravan of thousands from Central America trying to reach the United States, leave a temporary shelter voluntarily, which is to be closed by Mexican authorities for sanitary reasons, in Tijuana Mexico January 5, 2019. REUTERS/Jorge Duenes

By Diego Oré

MEXICO CITY (Reuters) – Mexican authorities will meet with Central American officials to prepare for the arrival of a planned new caravan of migrants headed to the United States next week.

The head of Mexico’s immigration office, Tonatiuh Guillen, left on Wednesday on a trip to El Salvador and Honduras to meet with his counterparts and other authorities, said Interior Ministry spokesman Hector Gandini.

Mexico hopes to discourage a mass exodus from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, and wants Central Americans who decide to migrate north to do so in an orderly way and through legal ports of entry.

“The doors to Mexico are open to anyone who wants to enter in an orderly fashion,” Gandini told Reuters in a telephone interview. “But whoever wants to come in illegally will be deported.”

Previous Central American caravans became a flashpoint in the debate over U.S. immigration policy.

That was intensified by the recent deaths of two migrant children in American custody and a partial U.S. government shutdown over U.S. President Donald Trump’s demand for $5.7 billion in funding for a wall along the border with Mexico.

There are 12 legal ports of entry for Central Americans on Mexico’s southern border, but Mexican authorities have identified an additional 370 illegal points of entry on that frontier, Interior Minister Olga Sanchez said this week.

Mexico borders in the south with Guatemala and Belize.

The illegal entry points will be “monitored and controlled to avoid undocumented access of people to our territory,” Sanchez said.

Guatemala’s deputy foreign minister, Pablo Cesar Garcia, met with Mexican authorities on Tuesday to discuss the caravan and to “provide all the necessary support to the migrants,” said Guatemalan Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Marta Larra.

“In Honduras, they kill us,” read an appeal circulating on social media for people to assemble in the violent Honduran city of San Pedro Sula next Tuesday to start the long trek north to the United States.

While other social media posts invite people to leave from nearby Santa Barbara on Jan. 20, U.S. authorities hoped to dissuade Central Americans from making the journey.

“The risks of illegal immigration are serious. Don’t waste your time and money on a trip destined to fail. The road is long and very dangerous. Thousands of Hondurans who participated in the caravan came back sorry,” Heide Fulton, the U.S chargé d’affaires to Honduras, said on Twitter on Wednesday.

(Reporting by Diego Ore; Additional reporting by Gustavo Palencia in Tegucigalpa, Sofia Menchu in Guatemala City, Nelson Renteria in San Salvador and Lizbeth Diaz in Tijuana, Mexico; Writing by Anthony Esposito; Editing by Peter Cooney)