Normalcy returns to Guatemala-Mexico border after caravan


Central American migrants walk carrying a handmade U.S. flag and banners, after crossing the Suchiate River from Guatemala in Ciudad Hidalgo, Mexico, Thursday, Jan. 23, 2020. Hundreds of Central American migrants hoping to reach the United States marooned in Guatemala walked en masse across the river leading to Mexico in a second attempt to convince authorities there to allow them passage through the country. (AP Photo/Marco Ugarte)

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CIUDAD HIDALGO, Mexico (AP) — From the roadside stand where his family sells mole, barbecue and chicken stew, Miguel Ángel Vázquez has seen all the caravans of Central American migrants and asylum seekers stream past his front door in recent years, throngs of people driven to flee poverty and violence in hopes of a better life in the United States.

After watching armored National Guard troops and immigration agents break up the latest one right on his doorstep, loading men, women and wailing children onto buses and hauling them off to a detention center in the nearby city of Tapachula, he’s sure of one thing.

“I can see that these caravans are no longer going to pass,” said Vásquez, 56.

On Friday morning, life was back to normal at the river border between Ciudad Hidalgo and Tecun Uman, Guatemala.

Carmelino Sánchez Cumes, 54, left his home in Champerico Guatemala at 4 a.m. to come buy medicine for two elderly aunts that’s not available back home.

The partial closure of river crossings “was tough” on people accustomed to doing so as part of daily life, he said.

The international bridge reopened at 5 a.m. and cars and motorcycles were crossing freely.

National guard troops stood watch in groups of about a half dozen, visibly fewer than before, and said privately that the tension of recent days had vanished.

One said it’s easy to distinguish local Guatemalans who cross for ordinary reasons for their manner of speaking, and they’re welcome “because they’re neighbors.”

Across the river in Tecun Uman, the field where migrants had camped for days before crossing the river at dawn Thursday, was empty and cordoned off with yellow tape.

Neighbor Luis Cáceres, 60, said some of the migrants had been camping in his yard.

He said he too is struggling to get enough work as a laborer, and he empathizes with their decisions to flee poverty and violence.

Cáceres too tried once to emigrate to the United States but only made it as far as Arriaga before turning back, frightened after spending nights sleeping outdoors among snakes and scorpions.

“How you suffer on those trips,” he said.

Where the first caravans were allowed to pass through Mexican territory and even given humanitarian aid or transportation by many communities and some officials, President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s administration changed that beginning last year in response to steep trade tariffs threatened by Washington.

The result was on display Thursday on a rural highway in the far-southern Mexican city of Frontera Hidalgo, just across the river border between Mexico and Guatemala that the hundreds of migrants, mostly Hondurans, crossed before dawn.

The migrants walked for hours before stopping at the crossroads where Vázquez’s stand lies, taking advantage of the copious shade on a road otherwise largely exposed to the beating tropical sun. They bought all the food the family and refreshments the family had and behaved respectfully, according to Karen Daniela Vázquez Robledo, his daughter.

Then hundreds of national guard troops advanced their lines to within 100 yards (meters) of the migrants. A brief negotiation stalled, and the migrants knelt to the ground in prayer and began to chant “we want to pass.”

National guardsmen advanced banging their plastic shields with batons and engaged the migrants. There was shoving and pepper spray as migrants were rounded up.

Many of the people allowed themselves to be escorted to the buses without resistance. Women cradling small children or holding kids’ hands wept as they walked toward the buses. In all, 800 migrants were detained, according to a statement from Mexico’s National Immigration Institute.

Others resisted and were subdued. One man dragged by three guardsmen and a migration agent shouted “they killed my brother, I don’t want to die,” presumably in reference to the possibility of being returned to his country.

A paramedic attended to an injured woman lying on the highway shoulder.

The road was left littered with water bottles, plastic bags and clothing. An irate man in a blue shirt yelled at the agents “this is a war against the Hondurans.”

On Friday, López Obrador said he had been briefed about the operation and commended military commanders for not resorting to force, without explaining what he considered to be force.

“I have information that the National Guard has acted well,” said López Obrador, who said he was briefed by Foreign Affairs Secretary Marcelo Ebrard. “He told us there had not been injured, had not been wounded, that the problem has been resolved well.”

López Obrador went on, as he has before, to describe the migrants as being “tricked” by unscrupulous organizers in Honduras who lead them to believe they will pass without problems. He added that his political adversaries, “the conservatives,” had hoped it would go badly for the Mexican government.

“Clearly there is a need,” López Obrador said. “But there’s a management, we’ll say political. Fortunately, human rights have been respected.”

Thursday’s confrontation was a sudden climax after the day had seemed to be winding down.

The migrant caravan had been diminishing since its last concerted attempt to cross the border Monday was turned back by Mexican National Guardsmen posted along the Suchiate River, which forms the border here.

The national guardsmen intercepted the caravan on the edge of the community of Frontera Hidalgo, near Ciudad Hidalgo where the migrants crossed the river at dawn.

In previous caravans, Mexican authorities have allowed caravans to walk for awhile, seemingly to tire them out, and then closed their path.

Mexico and Guatemala have returned hundreds of migrants from the caravan to their home countries since the caravan set out last week, mostly to Honduras.

Back at the roadside food stall in the southern state of Chiapas, Karen Vázquez, 26, was dismayed by what she saw unfold — the pepper spray, children running and crying.

“It was something very unpleasant, seeing how the people are taken away, and us hiding as well so they don’t take us away,” she said. “It makes us sad because they don’t take them in the right way. In truth, they take them very badly.”

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