By Luis Echeverria
VADO HONDO, Guatemala, Jan 18 (Reuters) – Guatemalan security forces on Monday cleared a road of hundreds of people in a mostly Honduran migrant caravan that had camped out overnight when authorities barred it from advancing toward the United States.
The Guatemalan government said the road in the eastern part of the country reopened to traffic after troops with batons and plastic shields closed in on the migrants just beyond the village of Vado Hondo, about 35 miles (56 km) from border crossings into Honduras and El Salvador.
With soldiers looking on, groups of migrants, many with 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 nearly 8,000 people, within hours of its departure for the United States from Honduras last week.
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.”
Ruben Tellez, a spokesman for Guatemala’s military, later defended soldiers’ use of force, describing it as minimal and proportionate.
“Their right to migrate is being respected so long as they prove that their entry into the country complies with migratory and sanitary requirements,” Tellez told Reuters, referring to valid identification documents as well as a negative COVID-19 test taken in the past 48 hours.
After the clearance, groups of migrants went back into Vado Hondo looking for alternative routes, the government said. It was unclear how many were turning back altogether.
WHITE HOUSE CHANGE
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.
Guatemala’s migration authority said late on Monday that about 1,800 Honduran migrants have been returned home since last Thursday, as well as about 100 Salvadorans sent back to El Salvador over the same time.
Nearly 20% of the deported migrants from the caravan were accompanied minors, according to the migration authority.
The confrontation with the migrant caravan, the first of 2021, occurred as Democratic U.S. President-elect Joe Biden prepares to take office on Wednesday. He has pledged more humane migration policies than outgoing Republican President Donald Trump, who favored a hard-line approach.
Mexican President Andres Manuel 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 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.
(Reporting by Luis Echeverria in Vado Hondo, Sofia Menchu in Guatemala City, Laura Gottesdiener in Tapachula, Mexico and Gustavo Palencia in Tegucigalpa; Writing by Cassandra Garrison; Editing by Howard Goller, Jonathan Oatis and Paul Simao)