Guatemalan security forces clashed with thousands of mostly Honduran migrants on Sunday as they tried to halt the largest caravan in years from reaching the US, where they would present an immediate test for Joe Biden’s immigration policy.
Dramatic images shared on social media showed a crowd of migrants surging through five lines of soldiers in Vado Hondo, Chiquimula, in eastern Guatemala near the border with Honduras.
The soldiers turned on the crowd with batons and sticks, eventually forcing them back. Officials say they had been attempting to join an earlier group of migrants which had advanced further.
In Mexico, the National Guard and other security forces had already begun deploying en masse in preparation for the arrival of the caravan.
As many as 9,000 people crossed the border into Guatemala in the early hours of Saturday, making it one of the biggest caravans since large groups began travelling north in 2018 and 2019.
The numbers of would-be migrants have swelled after Honduras was devastated in November by two powerful hurricanes, Eta and Iota, the most severe natural disasters to strike the county in two decades. They unleashed flooding and mudslides in what was already one of the region’s poorest countries, killing at least 94 and affecting some 4,000.
Guatemalan authorities have said the new caravan, which left the city of San Pedro Sula in stages last week, still numbers at least 6,000 after some people had returned home, but many would-be migrants say they have no work to which they can return home.
There were reports of injuries but no immediate details. President Alejandro Giammattei’s government made clear it would not let the migrants through and appealed to Honduras to “contain the mass exodus of its people”. The government last Thursday issued a two-week state of prevention, banning large gatherings in some areas as the caravan neared.
“Guatemalan authorities reiterate that . . . we promote migration only when it is safe, ordered and regular and will continue to express ourselves against any action that encourages irregular migration,” the government said in a statement.
At the behest of US President Donald Trump, Mexican and Guatemalan officials have clamped down on migrant flows but many Central Americans were hoping the situation would change after Mr Biden is inaugurated on January 20.
He has pledged to reverse Mr Trump’s policies.
“There will be a lot of careful rolling back ,” one member of the US transition team told the FT. “No one is interested in any abrupt movement that would send the signal that now is the time to come.”
The Biden administration, which will seek to rebuild asylum processes at the US border dismantled under Mr Trump, will also have to assess whether to grant so-called temporary protected status to Hondurans and other Central Americans affected by the hurricanes, the transition team member said.
Mark Morgan, acting commissioner of US Customs and Border Protection, praised Guatemala for supporting “the regional alliance committed to safe, orderly and legal migration” and warned of Covid-19 risks.
“While a migrant caravan attempts to reach Mexico and the US led by irresponsible co-ordinators, our countries have a combined 25m Covid-19 cases and 500,000 deaths — and infections are surging! Covid is a silent killer and the number of migrants falling ill will only increase,” he tweeted.