Guatemalan and Mexican governments use pandemic to turn back refugee caravan

October 6, 2020
Line of migrants from Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala at a temporary camp in Mexico City in 2018. Photo: Wikimedia Commons CC: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 past few days the Mexican and Guatemalan governments collaborated to stop the migrant march or caravan, which left Honduras on September 30, from reaching Mexico and the United States.

Mexican president Andrés Manuel López Obrador (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 are.

Furthermore, migrants who were aware they were sick, and put others at risk of infection, could face up to three years in prison, according to Mexico’s National Migration Institute. The sentence is up to ten years in 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 along 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,” said the group.

Passing through Guatemala

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

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

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

The Guatemalan Migration Institute reported that on October 3, about 4000 Hondurans entered Guatemala, and of these, authorities quickly deported 2159. 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 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.

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 October 4, 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 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 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 resulted in drastic increases in poverty and unemployment. A further 16 million Mexicans have fallen into extreme poverty 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 risen 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 has been working with refugees and migrants in Mexico for more than four years. She has worked as a journalist for the past two decades and is the author of The Butterfly Prison. Her writing can be found on her website, Resistance Words.]

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