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)

Violence, gangs cast pall over life in Honduras

"El Fresa" (L), a Barrio-18 gang member, sits on a sofa next to another Barrio-18 gang member in San Pedro Sula, Honduras, May 27, 2018. REUTERS/Edgard Garrido

By Edgard Garrido

TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras (Reuters) – Ana Luz, sister-in-law of Ronald Blanco, looked on grimly as neighbors of the murdered Honduran man washed away the rills of blood left where his bullet-ridden body had lain outside his house in a troubled barrio on the outskirts of Tegucigalpa in Honduras.

 

The body of Ronald Blanco, 37, who was shot dead outside his house, lies on a police pick-up truck in Japon neighbourhood in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, August 2 2018. REUTERS/Edgard Garrido

The body of Ronald Blanco, 37, who was shot dead outside his house, lies on a police pick-up truck in Japon neighborhood in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, August 2 2018. REUTERS/Edgard Garrido

It was just one of many scenes I witnessed this year while on assignment in Honduras, where thousands of people sought to escape violence and poverty by joining a migrant caravan in hope of making it to safety across the Mexico-U.S. border. The problems in this small Central American country grabbed international attention as U.S. President Donald Trump cracked down on illegal immigration.

Honduras has for years been one of the world’s most murderous countries. Though official data show the homicide rate has fallen sharply, it continues to be a highly challenging environment in which to work.

According to Honduran government figures, the homicide rate reached 86 per 100,000 people in 2011-2012. This year, the rate should end below 40 per 100,000, the security ministry says. This compares to the latest statistics in the United States, where there were 5.3 murders per 100,000 in 2017, according to the FBI’s most recent report on its website.

Danger in Honduras is never far away.

Forensic workers carry the body of a man who was killed in San Pedro Sula, Honduras, June 4, 2018. REUTERS/Edgard Garrido

Forensic workers carry the body of a man who was killed in San Pedro Sula, Honduras, June 4, 2018. REUTERS/Edgard Garrido

During my roughly three months spent in Honduras in 2018, I photographed mothers waiting at the morgue for the bodies of murdered sons and daughters, police keeping watch over corpses left lying on streets after shootouts and families wailing over the coffins of loved ones.

Blanco, 37, lived in the Japon neighborhood, a breeding ground for gang violence, according to local authorities. It was here that I experienced the most tense moment of my time in Honduras, as I moved between police, soldiers, gang members, forensic experts, hearse drivers and pastors.

At Blanco’s funeral, I was stopped by a young man with piercing eyes, one green and one blue. He demanded to know why I was there.

Civilians and former gang members gesture inside a rehabilitation centre in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, July 13, 2018. REUTERS/Edgard Garrido

Civilians and former gang members gesture inside a rehabilitation centre in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, July 13, 2018. REUTERS/Edgard Garrido

I explained that I was a journalist taking photographs of the event. But the youth kept pressing me with questions about what had brought me to Blanco’s funeral. As I continued taking the photos, I felt increasingly uncomfortable.

Finally, the tension eased when one of Blanco’s friends intervened, saying that the grieving family had authorized my presence.

 

(Reporting by Edgard Garrido; Additional reporting by Delphine Schrank; Writing by Daina Beth Solomon and Julia Love; Editing by Diane Craft)