MEXICO CITY- Yet again, southern Mexico is witness to the tragedy of thousands of Central American migrants fleeing violence and poverty in their homelands with the hope of finding asylum in the United States.
And though it is not a new phenomenon, this latest caravan faces unprecedented obstacles amid a climate of growing hostility.
The first caravan of 2020 set out Jan. 15 from the northern Honduran city of San Pedro Sula, and already includes some 5,000 people from Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua and Guatemala, according to estimate by the governments of Mexico and Guatemala.
On Jan. 18, two contingents of migrants were stopped by Mexican security forces when they tried to enter the Aztec nation from Guatemala at two different points along the border.
About 2,000 migrants chose to surrender to immigration authorities and apply to remain in Mexico with the idea of later trying to reach the US.
But Mexico's National Migration Institute (INM) says that most of them will be deported to their countries of origin. One hundred migrant were repatriated on Tuesday.
In fact, according to the non-governmental organizations that make up the Human Rights Observation and Monitoring Collective in Southeast Mexico, the INM offered them the chance to enroll in social programs, but in their respective countries of origin.
On Monday, about 500 migrants crossed the Suchiate River from Tecun Uman, Guatemala, to Ciudad Hidalgo, Mexico, after Mexican government denied their formal request for admission. The National Guard deployed tear gas and captured more than 400 people, while 58 others disappeared into the jungle.
Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador denied Tuesday that what happened in Ciudad Hidalgo was an act of repression.
The first caravan formed in Honduras in October 2018 as a consequence of worsening poverty and violence in the region.
Migrants opted for the caravan due to several factors, officials said. The first consideration was safety, as migrants making the journey across Mexico are often targeted by organized crime for extortion and kidnapping. Secondly, they believed they had to make the move before the US tightened asylum policies to the point that they would never be admitted.
Finally, the notion of the caravan made sense because the flow of migrants is now made up mainly of entire families, rather than individuals.
In May 2019, after several caravans reached the US border, President Donald Trump threatened to impose tariffs on all Mexican imports if Mexico did not halt the northward movement of Central Americans.
This threat prompted the Lopez Obrador administration to make a 180 degree turn on immigration.
On the day Lopez Obrador assumed the presidency, Dec. 1, 2018, he signed a Comprehensive Development Plan to address the migration crisis in the countries of the Northern Triangle of Central America - Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras - with an emphasis on creating job opportunities there to reduce forced migration.
The Mexican president also sought to enlist the US in that effort.
After Trump's threat, however, Lopez Obrador, who had previously authorized issuing humanitarian visas to migrants, agreed with the US in June 2019 on a plan to curb migration.
Last month, Mexico announced a 70 percent reduction in the number of people arriving at its border with the US and said that the INM had deported 178,960 foreigners in 2019.
But the growing hostility of the Mexican and US governments toward Central American migration does not change the reality of the region.
The vast majority of the more than 70,000 applications received last year by the Mexican Commission for Assistance to Refugees came from Central Americans.
For them, returning home is not an option. Honduras and El Salvador have some of the highest homicide rates in the world, while in both Honduras and Guatemala, 60 percent of the population lives below the poverty line.