FRONTERA HIDALGO, Mexico – Thousands of Central Americans crossed into Mexico illegally Thursday from Guatemala, taking advantage of scant monitoring of a section of the Suchiate River, the natural border between those two countries.
The migrants traveled several kilometers inside Mexico and said they planned to move in orderly fashion and formally apply for asylum, but more than 200 members of Mexico’s National Guard halted their advance on a road in Chiapas state near the Guatemala-Mexico border after an attempt at dialogue between the migrants and Mexican authorities broke down.
National Migration Institute (INM) buses arrived at that spot near the town of Frontera Hidalgo to take hundreds of detained migrants to immigration-processing centers such as the Siglo XXI station in the city of Tapachula.
Carrying the flags of Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala and Nicaragua and signs with the message “We Want to Talk Directly to the President,” the migrants set out early Thursday and walked more than 10 kilometers (6.2 miles) from Ciudad Hidalgo, Chiapas, to the nearby town of Frontera Hidalgo.
They said they were taking up an offer from Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, who last Friday offered jobs to thousands of migrants but said they would need to apply for asylum in Mexico.
The migrants also said they were looking to obtain safe-conduct passes - at least in Chiapas - and thereby avoid being targets of the National Guard, a recently formed militarized police force.
“Right now what we’re going to do is heed the call of (Lopez Obrador) ... He’s promised us that they won’t touch us with an (asylum application) in hand. That’s what we’re going to do. If they touch us, I don’t know who’s lying there. But we’re going to do our part,” Honduran Jose Luis Morales told EFE Thursday.
However, tensions escalated Thursday when the migrants and some activists accompanying them confronted officials with the Mexican Commission for Refugee Assistance (Comar) and the INM and demanded they respond to some 2,000 requests for asylum made in recent days by members of their caravan.
On Monday, between 500 and 1,000 migrants - part of a caravan that originally consisted of as many as 5,000 people - ran across the Suchiate River near the Rodolfo Robles bridge.
The National Guard responded with tear gas and captured more than 400 people; the National Migration Institute said 40 other migrants opted to return to Guatemala of their own accord, while 58 others disappeared into the jungle.
The INM says that a total of 679 Honduran members of the caravan, which left that impoverished Central American country a week ago, have been deported by air or land.
That institute said Wednesday that more than 2,000 migrants had been intercepted in a single day in the southeastern Mexican states of Chiapas and Tabasco.
On Thursday, the migrants crossed the Suchiate River at a different point to avoid being turned away by the National Guard.
Despite having crossed the river by surprise, the Central Americans had pledged on Thursday to migrate in peaceful and orderly fashion.
“We’re traveling because it’s the only way that maybe they’ll show mercy and let us travel to the north. My (preferred) destination is the United States, but if I can stay in Mexico I’ll stay because for me it’s a big advantage, since we’re supported here by all the Mexican people,” Honduran Marco Tulio Polanco told EFE.
Mexico’s equivalent of an ombudsman’s office, the National Human Rights Commission, which has come under fire for its lukewarm response to Monday’s events on the border, on Thursday issued a statement saying that its officials have been gathering up complaints and that it condemns “all acts of violence against the physical integrity of migrants.”
Unemployment, poverty and, above all, high levels of gang violence are the reasons most cited by Central Americans for leaving their native countries.
Mexico’s response to this first migrant caravan of 2020 reflects a sharp change in policy by Lopez Obrador’s administration, which had previously offered fast-track visas to migrants for humanitarian reasons and had sought to enlist the US in a development plan for Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras.
That plan focused on boosting job opportunities in countries that have some of the highest homicide rates in the world and where 60 percent of the population lives below the poverty line.
But under pressure from US President Donald Trump’s administration, which had threatened to impose tariffs on all Mexican imports if that country did not halt the northward movement of Central Americans, Lopez Obrador’s government 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.