Thousands camp in Guatemala as Mexico blocks migrant path

International

Mexican National Guardsmen look at the bridge spanning the Suchiate River in Ciudad Hidalgo, on the Mexican border with Guatemala, near Ciudad Hidalgo, Mexico, Sunday, Jan. 19, 2020. Mexican authorities have closed a border entry point in southern Mexico after thousands of Central American migrants tried to push across a bridge between Mexico and Guatemala. (AP Photo/Marco Ugarte)

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TECUN UMAN, Guatemala (AP) — The bridge spanning the Suchiate River between Mexico and Guatemala was open again for business on Sunday, but few migrants were crossing after a failed attempt to barge through by thousands of Central Americans the previous day.

More than 2,000 migrants spent the night in Tecun Uman, on the Guatemalan side of the border, uncertain of their next steps.

Mexico, pressured by the U.S. to halt the northward flow of migrants, is offering those who turn themselves over to authorities temporary jobs in southern Mexico, likely in agriculture or construction. But many of the migrants would rather pass through the country to try to start a new life in the United States.

Volunteers spooned out a hot breakfast of beans, eggs, tortillas and coffee on Sunday to a line of migrants that stretched around the Senor de las Tres Caidas church, a blue and white Spanish colonial-style structure with a bell perched on top that’s in the heart of Tecun Uman.

“We improvised this shelter because the other one was crowded,” said Alfredo Camarena, vicar of the Catholic church.

Camarena estimated that more than 2,000 migrants spent the night in his church, in shelters or on the streets, and that several hundred more would arrive in the coming days.

Mexican national guardsmen on Saturday slammed shut a metal fence that reads “Welcome to Mexico” to block the path of thousands of Central American migrants who attempted to push their way across the Rodolfo Robles Bridge.

Beyond the fence, on the Mexican side of the border, Mexican troops in riot gear formed a human wall to reinforce the barrier as the crowd pressed forward.

Mexican Gen. Vicente Hernández stood beyond the green bars, flanked by guardsmen, with an offer: Turn yourselves over to us, and the Mexican government will find you jobs.

“There are opportunities for all,” he promised.

Migrants looking for permission to stay in Mexico passed through in groups of 20. As the day wore on, around 300 turned themselves over to Mexican immigration.

Mexico’s offer of employment, and not just legal status, represents a new twist in the country’s efforts to find humane solutions to the mostly Central American migrants who are fleeing poverty and violence in their home countries.

Under threat of trade and other sanctions from the U.S., Mexico has stepped up efforts in recent months to prevent migrants from reaching their desired final destination: the U.S.

The Suchiate River has sometimes been a point for standoffs, as migrants group together for strength in numbers, hoping that they can force their way across the bridge, or wade across the river, to avoid immigration checks in Mexico.

The water levels of the river have been low enough this weekend to allow those who dare to simply trudge across. National Guardsmen lined the banks to warn against such undertakings, with interactions that resemble a high-stakes game of chicken.

Honduran Darlin Mauricio Mejía joined a dozen other migrants for a splash on the banks of the Guatemalan side of the river early Sunday.

Playfully, he shouted out to the guardsmen: Can we step into Mexico to grab some mangos to eat?

One of the guardsmen responded, curtly: “Let’s go to immigration and they’ll help you there.”

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Maria Verza reported from Ciudad Hidalgo, Mexico.

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