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Guatemalan forces stall migrant caravan from Honduras with tear gas, batons

Honduran migrants clash with Guatemalan soldiers in Vado Hondo, Guatemala, on Sunday.
(Sandra Sebastian / Associated Press)

Guatemalan police and soldiers launched tear gas and wielded batons and shields against a group of Honduran migrants who tried to push through their roadblock Sunday.

A group of about 2,000 migrants had stopped short of the roadblock the night before. The roadblock was strategically placed at a chokepoint on the two-lane highway to Chiquimula in an area known as Vado Hondo. It’s flanked by a tall mountainside and a wall, leaving the migrants with few options.

About 100 migrants tried to make their way through authorities around 7:30 a.m. Sunday. Security forces beat them back and deployed tear gas. None made it through, and the larger remaining contingent kept its distance during the melee.

Some migrants were visibly injured by baton strikes. One man, who did not give his name, leaned against a wall near police with a bandage atop his head.

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“They hit me in the head,” he said. “I didn’t come with the intention of looking for problems with anybody. We’re brothers, Central Americans. We’re not looking for trouble. We just want to pass.”

Later, hundreds of migrants sat down on the roadway, refusing to leave and insisting they be allowed through, appealing to the soldiers as fellow Central Americans.

Biden’s election has raised hopes in Central America — devastated by hurricane-driven floods, in addition to chronic issues of poverty and gang violence — that the incoming administration may ease policies for asylum seekers.

Leila Rodriguez, of Guatemala’s human rights office, spoke to the migrants, acknowledging that “this is a distressing moment we’re experiencing.”

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“We want to start a dialogue with you, to ask you to accept some of the needs of the Guatemalan people right now,” Rodriguez said, in apparent reference to President Alejandro Giammattei’s refusal to allow caravans through for fear they could spread the coronavirus.

Some of the migrants wore face masks; others didn’t. There was little social distancing. Few had the negative coronavirus test results that Guatemala requires of people entering the country.

Guatemala’s Health Ministry reported that 21 of the migrants sought medical attention at health centers and tested positive for the coronavirus. The department said the 12 men and and nine women would not be returned to Honduras until they underwent quarantine at centers in Guatemala.

Honduran and Guatemalan families flooded out by Hurricanes Eta and Iota may lead to a new wave of migration, observers across the region say.

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As the standoff stretched toward 24 hours, some migrants, like Ismael Eliazar, lay down in the grass beside the roadway. “We have only had water. Even my stomach is grumbling,” Eliazar said.

Referring to the damage wrought by two major hurricanes that hit his hometown, Choloma, in November, Eliazar said: “There is still mud everywhere there. Everything got knocked down. We lost everything.”

Guatemalan soldiers and police had blocked part of a caravan of as many as 9,000 Honduran migrants Saturday night at a point not far from where they entered the country in their aim to reach the U.S. border.

The soldiers and riot police — about 450 in total — formed ranks across a highway.

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Guatemala’s immigration agency distributed a video showing a couple of hundred men scuffling with soldiers, pushing and running through their lines, even as troops held back hundreds more Saturday night.

On Saturday, Giammattei issued a statement calling on Honduran authorities “to contain the mass exit of its inhabitants.” The migrants had entered Guatemala the day before by pushing past about 2,000 police and soldiers posted at the border.

Guatemala has set up almost a dozen control points on highways and may start busing more migrants back to Honduras, as it has done before.

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Governments throughout the region have made it clear that they will not let the caravan through.

Mexico mounted a campaign at its southern border to dissuade migrants from coming, circulating videos and photos of thousands of National Guardsmen and immigration agents preparing if the migrants manage to cross Guatemala.

On Saturday, the Mexican Foreign Relations Department issued a statement praising Guatemala’s stance.

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“The Mexican government recognizes the outstanding work of the government of Guatemala, which has acted in a firm and responsible manner toward the contingent of migrants that violated its sovereignty,” the statement said.

Honduras has been ravaged by the COVID-19 pandemic and the November hurricanes, which left the country’s most productive northern regions in tatters. Many of the migrants hope for a warmer reception from the incoming administration of President-elect Joe Biden, who will be inaugurated Wednesday.

So far, Biden’s team has indicated that it will not make immediate changes to policies at the U.S.-Mexico border.


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