National Guards get on a truck in Ciudad Hidalgo, Mexico, Friday, Jan. 17, 2020 as they deploy along southern border with Guatemala. United States officials are crediting tough measures taken over the past year and cooperation from regional governments for sharply reducing the number of Central American migrants who responded to a call for a new caravan. (AP Photo/Marco Ugarte)

Mexico readies for Central American migrants at south border

January 17, 2020 - 5:22 pm

CIUDAD HIDALGO, Mexico (AP) — Border security forces in southern Mexico were preparing Friday for the expected arrival of hundreds of Central Americans traveling through Guatemala and vowed to prevent a repeat of the headline-grabbing “caravans” of past years when massive flows of migrants and asylum seekers overwhelmed agents.

National Guard and army troops stood watch as rafts plied the Suchiate River between the two countries as dawn painted the sky a vibrant tangerine. About 100 more guardsmen arrived in the afternoon with riot shields to await orders.

A soldier who requested anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly said more small groups of soldiers were expected to continue arriving from Tapachula. Small groups of migrants on the Guatemalan side grew slowly as the day wore on.

“We have been tasked with being vigilant, and if we see a large group on the other side, we will deploy a human wall on this side to contain them,” another marine and member of the National Guard told The Associated Press, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to reporters.

It was expected that more Central Americans could arrive late Friday or on Saturday. River levels were so low that a backhoe was in the middle of its bed dredging up the muddy soil and men were damming sections so it would be deep enough for rafts to cross.

About a dozen Honduran cane-cutters were bathing in the murky waters on the Guatemalan side and sizing up the situation.

One of them, 37-year-old Osman Durán, was in the first caravan in 2018. He made it to the U.S. border and jumped the fence to turn himself in, only to be deported later. His wife and daughter are in Mississippi awaiting resolution of their asylum petition.

“We have to wait for the group and see what decisions are made,” Durán said.

Local resident Marvin García, 41, who has made a living poling a raft on the Suchiate for two decades, predicted that migrants would avoid the kind of chaos seen in 2018 when there were clashes with agents at the border gates on the Mexican side, migrants jumping off the bridge into the water and wading across in large numbers.

“We are waiting,” García said. “It is not known what will happen, whether they will throw themselves (into the water), but I don’t think what happened last year will be repeated.”

He added that far fewer are crossing these days compared with a half-year ago, when Mexico began deploying thousands of federal agents after U.S. President Donald Trump threatened punishing trade tariffs, though it still happens along the length of the porous border.

Francisco Garduño, commissioner of Mexico’s National Immigration Institute, was emphatic that migrants who try to enter the country irregularly would go no farther than here.

“They cannot enter because it would be in violation of the law,” he told AP, declining to talk in specifics about border reinforcements but saying there were “sufficient” troops to keep things orderly.

Mexico's Interior ministry said in a statement that immigration agents and officials from the country's refugee agency would be on hand to offer protection and potential temporary employment to those migrants who entered the country legally and agreed to stay in the south.

Representatives of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees office and medical NGOs were also at the river.

Christy Rivas, a 33-year-old who left her two children with her mother back in the Honduran capital, Tegucigalpa, made her way onto the border bridge with another migrant to ask whether they would be allowed to pass. A Mexican agent halfway across asked if they were “part of the caravan” and directed her to the immigration outpost. Fearful of being entrapped and deported, they went back to wait for others to arrive: “United is better,” Rivas said.

She’s aware that Mexico and the United States have made it more difficult to get to and then stay in the U.S., but said it’s a necessary risk because there’s no work back home. That’s a complaint commonly cited by people on the migratory route out of Central America’s Northern Triangle Region of Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala, along with rampant gang violence, grinding poverty and to a lesser extent political persecution.

Rivas planned to hire a “coyote,” or smuggler, to get her to the Texas border and across illegally because she doesn’t have documents to claim asylum — but that depended on getting into Mexico first.

“Right now the problem is here,” she said, motioning toward the bridge.

The first groups of about 1,460 migrants set out from San Pedro Sula, Honduras, on Wednesday, followed by some 2,083 on Thursday, according to the latest figures from Guatemala’s immigration agency. However, most advanced in separate groups rather than as a single cohesive whole and at least 300 were rounded up by Guatemalan police Thursday and bused back to the Honduran border.

Just a day after taking office, President Alejandro Giammattei said this week they would be allowed to pass through his country as long as they carried the proper documentation. A Central American regional border pact allows free movement of citizens of the Northern Triangle nations and Nicaragua.

To the south, hundreds of men, women and children resumed walking around 4 a.m. after sleeping at a migrant shelter in Esquipulas, Guatemala.

Keidy Pineda, 21 years old and breast-feeding her nearly 2-year-old daughter Kendra as they made their way along the highway, carried just a small backpack with a few belongings. She said she fled Tegucigalpa because of poverty and dreams of a better life in the United States.

“We have nothing, just my daughter,” Pineda said. “Her father was killed for getting mixed up with the wrong crowd. They left his body at the doorstep of my house.”

Mari a na Avila, 47, left behind her small business in hopes of making it to the United States along with six family members.

“Back there it’s impossible. You can’t pay the electricity, there’s nothing to eat,” Avila said. “I have photos from when they beat me for extortion. Up there we are going to be well.”

Less-organized migrants, tighter controls by Guatemalan and Mexican authorities and the presence of U.S. advisers have reduced the likelihood of a repeat of the huge, cohesive processions that the term “caravan” came to conjure in 2018.

Guatemala is stricter about checking documents, and Mexico has deployed thousands of National Guard agents in key corridors to do immigration control. Asylum seekers who manage to make it to the U.S. border are, after long waits, generally sent back to Mexico to await the outcome of their cases or, more recently, flown to other countries in the region and told their only option is to apply for refuge there.

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Pérez D. reported from Esquipulas, Guatemala.

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