Guatemalan and Mexican Governments Use Pandemic to Turn Back Caravan of Thousands of Refugees

Photograph Source: ProtoplasmaKid – CC BY-SA 4.0

Thousands of Honduran migrants and refugees have been beaten, arrested, threatened with prison, and deported as they tried to make their way through the closed borders of Guatemala and Mexico.

Over the last few days the Mexican and Guatemalan governments collaborated to stop the migrant march or caravan, which left Honduras on 30 September, from reaching Mexico and the US.

Mexican president Andrés Manuel López Obrador (or AMLO), took credit for denying refugees entry, using the pandemic as an excuse and claiming that the migrants had a political agenda, given how close the US elections were.

Further, migrants who came into the country and were aware that they were sick and put others at risk of infection could face from three days to up to three years in prison, Mexico’s National Migration Institute said. The sentence was up to ten years for Tabasco and Chiapas states, near the Guatemalan border.

Given the significant numbers of people in Mexico who haven’t been using masks in public, and the Mexican government’s insistence that failure to wear masks wouldn’t be punished, the statement was clearly discriminatory and aimed at stirring up xenophobia.

A Mexican human rights monitoring collective also noted that the Mexican National Guard, its army, immigration officials, and marines were deployed on the bank of the Suchiate River, which marks part of the border between Mexico and Guatemala.

“This amounts to a narrative of criminalisation and stigmatisation of migrants,” the group stated.

Passing through Guatemalan

After travelling through Honduras, video footage show s the migrant caravan managing to break through the police barrier set up on the Guatemalan-Honduran border. From there, further footage shows migrants walking with family or children for kilometres along a road in Guatemala in 34-degree Celsius heat. Most of them are wearing face masks, or holding them.

“We don’t migrate because we want to. We love our country. But there’s no work. The country is run by a narco-state,” one migrant says in the footage.

Following the migrants’ entry into Guatemala, president Alejandro Giammattei decreed a two-week state of prevention, a kind of state of emergency in Guatemala, in six states. He ordered that the migrants be detained, based on the health emergency.

The Guatemalan Migration Institute reported that on 3 October, some 4,000 Hondurans entered Guatemala, and of these, Guatemalan authorities quickly deported 2,159. They also prohibited drivers from giving lifts to migrants, including if the migrants paid.

I talked to Mario Buendia Amador, who came to Mexico with a previous caravan, and who was in constant contact with a relative of his who was in this recent caravan.

Buendia reported that some migrants arrived at a shelter in Tecún Umán, Guatemala, but that the priest there “betrayed them” and called the police and army. The army arrived with tanks and put migrants into buses and police vans. Buendia’s relative managed to escape from the police station, along with other migrants.

The other migrants were forced to go back to their country, Buendia said, and in some instances they were “beaten and taken on to the buses or trucks.”

“The governments have been bought by Donald Trump,” Buendia said, referring to the Mexican and Guatemalan governments.

On Sunday, in the states of Petén and Izabal, the Guatemalan military police set up fences to capture many of the remaining migrants on their way to the border, and sent them back to Honduras.

Following US orders

The US has used the pandemic as an excuse to close its land border and send back all migrants and refugees within two hours of trying to cross the US-Mexico border. The measure violates both US laws and international laws regarding the right to seek asylum and to due process.

Tourists from the US however, can freely enter into Mexico by plane, despite coming from the country with the highest registered number of COVID-19 deaths.

Meanwhile, pandemic measures in countries like Guatemala, Honduras, and Mexico, have seen drastic increases in poverty and unemployment. A further 16 million Mexicans have fallen into extreme poverty conditions over the past few months, and the number of people facing food insecurity has almost doubled in Honduras. Violence rates and the impact of gangs have both likely increased as well, leading to a greater need for people to leave their countries.

“People who are fleeing crime and searching for a better future shouldn’t be treated like this,” Buendia said. “But there is something that we have, as migrants. We don’t give up, we do everything to achieve our goals.”

Tamara Pearson is a long time journalist based in Latin America, and author of The Butterfly Prison. Her writings can be found at her blog.