CIUDAD HIDALGO, Mexico—About 2,000 Central American migrants who circumvented Mexican police at a border bridge and swam, forded and floated across the river from Guatemala decided on Oct. 20 to re-form their mass caravan and continue their trek northward towards the United States.
Gathered at a park in the border city of Ciudad Hidalgo, the migrants voted by a show of hands and then marched to the bridge to urge those still there to cross the river and join them.
In a statement late Oct. 20, Mexico’s federal government said “nearly 900 migrants” had arrived by unauthorized means, while 640 refugee requests by Hondurans were processed and allowed to cross into the country via the international border crossing on the Suchite River that divides Guatemala from Mexico.
Mexico’s ambassador to Guatemala, Luis Manuel López Moreno, had said on Oct. 19 when thousands of people rushed across the Suchite River bridge that the Mexico border was not closed and that the country would allow in some 100 migrants a day to review their humanitarian and asylum requests, reported the Wall Street Journal.
“These people are in great need. The border is not closed, we are open to receive them with order and according to the law,” he said.
Migrants cited widespread poverty and gang violence in Honduras, one of the world’s deadliest nations by homicide rate, as their reasons for joining the caravan.
“One cannot live back there,” Fidelina Vasquez said, a grandmother traveling with her daughter and 2-year-old grandson, standing next to the main border gate.
Hector Aguilar, a 49-year-old sales manager who worked as a taxi driver in Honduras’ Yoro province to feed his four children, said he had to pay the two main gangs there protection money in order to work.
“On Thursdays I paid the 18th Street gang, and on Saturdays the MS-13,” Aguilar said. “Three hundred lempiras per day” — about $12.50, a significant amount in low-wage Honduras.
Authorities began handing out numbers for people to be processed in a strategy seen before at U.S. border posts when dealing with large numbers of migrants.
But the government made it clear that if people were to enter Mexico illegally, they would be caught and returned to their countries of origin.
Moreno also stressed that there were serious risks posed by “irregular entry” into the country, including migrant smuggling and human trafficking networks.
Despite the heavy police deployment on the bridge, a steady stream of migrants chose to enter onto Mexican soil illegally by crossing the Suchiate River that demarcates the notoriously porous border.
They swam, waded with the aid of ropes or paid locals who charge the equivalent of $1.25 to ferry people and goods across the muddy waters, and were not detained on reaching the Mexican bank.
Where easily 3,000 people were on the bridge the previous day, the crowd had thinned out considerably by Oct. 20. In addition to those who crossed the river, immigration agents processed migrants in small groups and then bused them to an open-air, metal-roof fairground in Tapachula, where the Red Cross set up small blue tents on the concrete floor.
Mexico’s Interior Department released photos of migrants getting off buses at a shelter and receiving food and medical attention. But the pace was slow, frustrating those who remained on the bridge in hot and cramped conditions.
Each time a small side gate opened to allow people to pass, there was a crush of bodies as migrants desperately pushed forward.
Scarleth Cruz hoisted a crying, sweat-soaked baby girl above the crowd, crying out: “This girl is suffocating.”
At least half a dozen migrants fainted.
Some tore open a fence on the Guatemala side of the bridge and threw two young children, perhaps age 6 or 7, and their mother into the muddy waters about 40 feet below. They were rafted to safety in on the Mexican bank.
The caravan elicited a series of warning tweets from U.S. President Trump early in the week.
“The Mexican Government is fully engaged in finding a solution that encourages safe, secure, and orderly migration,” State Department Spokeswoman Heather Nauert said on Oct. 20, “and both the United States and Mexico continue to work with Central American governments to address the economic, security, and governance drivers of illegal immigration.”
Presidents Hernandez of Honduras and Jimmy Morales of Guatemala held an emergency meeting at a Guatemalan air base on Oct. 20.
“It is estimated that approximately between 5,000 to 5,400 people entered Guatemalan territory,” Morales said. “We are working to provide a peaceful and safe return trip and avoid that these movements keep happening in the future.”
Hernandez said: “I want to assure Hondurans that we have a working team to receive them, as well as a package of offers in terms of opportunities depending on what each citizen wants to do with his life in terms of an undertaking or in terms of bettering his quality of life in his community.”
He added that migrants from elsewhere in the region had joined the caravan, along with others from “outside the Central American region,” though he did not cite specific nationalities.
“We want to say to all who are participating in this caravan, that it has been shown that in addition to Hondurans there are (people) from other countries in the region and also outside of the Central American region. And don’t let yourself be fooled, take care of your life, reflect and understand the enormous risk and danger that you are being submitted to,” he said.
The leaders said an estimated 5,400 migrants had entered Guatemala since the caravan was announced a week ago, and about 2,500 Hondurans have returned voluntarily, many using free bus tickets from the Honduran government. Hernandez added that planes would be used to fly women and children back home.
Migrant Gonzalo Martinez says he is voluntarily returning to Honduras from a bridge connecting Guatemala and Mexico because he was disappointed in the unruliness of caravan members and just wanted to head home.
“We thought the caravan was passive but there were unruly people, I was disappointed,” said the 37-year-old farmer as he boarded a bus in Tecun Uman, Guatemala to take him back to Honduras.
Morales said a Honduran migrant died in the town of Villa Nueva, about 20 miles (30 kilometers) from Guatemala City, when he fell from a truck that was transporting migrants.
Zachary Stieber and The Associated Press contributed to this report.