Guatemala ups pressure on U.S.-bound migrant caravan, clears road
Security forces use sticks, tear gas to halt passage of the mostly Honduran migrants
Guatemalan security forces on Monday cleared a road of hundreds of people, part of a mostly Honduran migrant caravan, who had camped out overnight when authorities barred them from advancing toward the United States.
The government said the road in eastern Guatemala reopened to traffic after troops with batons and plastic shields closed in on the migrants just beyond the village of Vado Hondo, some 55 kilometres from the borders of Honduras and El Salvador.
With soldiers looking on, groups of migrants, many with young children and carrying bags and luggage, then waited in lines to board buses returning them to the El Florido border crossing with Honduras, video footage on social media showed.
The removal of the large group was the latest effort by Guatemalan authorities to break up the caravan, which authorities said numbered close to 8,000 people, within hours of its departure for the U.S. from Honduras last week.
WATCH | Guatemala forces stall migrant caravan with tear gas, batons:
About 2,000 of the migrants installed themselves on the road after they clashed with Guatemalan security forces on Sunday during a failed effort to make their way past them.
Some people were injured as troops forced the crowd from the road, said Andres Gomez, a Guatemalan in the caravan.
"This isn't a war. It's a caravan with women and children. The soldiers have no right to beat anyone," he said. "There are women who've been beaten, it's an act of violence."
Guatemala's government did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the accusations.
After the clearance, groups of migrants went back into Vado Hondo looking for alternate routes, the government said. It was unclear how many were turning back altogether.
Guatemalan authorities said late on Sunday they have sent 1,568 migrants back home since Friday, the vast majority to Honduras. Nearly 100 were returned to El Salvador.
Many of the migrants say they are fleeing poverty and lawlessness in a region rocked by the coronavirus pandemic and two devastating hurricanes in November.
The first migrant caravan of 2021 comes just as Democratic U.S. president-elect Joe Biden takes office on Wednesday pledging more humane migration policies than outgoing Republican President Donald Trump, who favoured a hard-line approach.
Mexican President Andres Lopez Obrador on Monday warned migrants not to try to enter countries by force, and said he was in touch with both the outgoing and incoming U.S. administrations over the migrant caravan.
Lopez Obrador said he was hopeful that Biden would carry out an immigration reform and work with Mexico and Central America on a plan that could provide alternatives to migration.
Guatemalan Foreign Minister Pedro Brolo said on Monday he was surprised that Honduras did not want to collaborate in stopping the caravan, citing earlier joint discussions on it.
The head of the Honduran border police, Julian Hernandez, said more than 800 security officials had tried to stop the caravan at the Guatemalan border, but migrants pushed through the barrier, some using children "as shields."
"We weren't there with our arms folded," he told Reuters.
Leila Rodriguez, of Guatemala's human rights office, spoke to the migrants in Vado Hondo on Sunday, acknowledging: "This is a distressing moment we're experiencing."
"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 an apparent reference to President Alejandro Giammattei's refusal to allow caravans through, out of fear they could spread COVID-19.
Some of the migrants wore face masks, others didn't, but there was little social distancing among them. Few had the negative COVID-19 tests that Guatemala requires for people entering the country.
Guatemala's Health Ministry reported that 21 of the migrants sought medical attention at health centres and tested positive for the coronavirus. The department said the 12 men and and nine women would not be returned to Honduras until they undergo quarantine at centres in Guatemala.
With files from The Associated Press