Honduran killed in Mexican border crackdown on migrant caravan

Tecun Uman, Guatemala and Tapachula, Mexico – A Honduran man was killed late on Sunday as the crackdown on migrants and refugees walking from Central America to the United States intensified.

Henry Diaz, a 26-year-old Honduran, was shot in the head with a rubber bullet, causing a deep head wound. He died on the way to a local hospital.

Diaz was among more than 1,000 migrants and refugees, most of them from Honduras, who attempted to force their way through the Tecun Uman crossing on Sunday. Police also used tear gas; more than 100 people were wounded.

The group at the Mexican border on Sunday are attempting to catch up to the initial wave of now more than 7,000 migrants and refugees who began their journey north more than two weeks ago. The group has been dubbed a migrant caravan.

Santo Avila, a 29-year-old labourer from Palestina, a rural community in eastern Honduras, told Al Jazeera the confrontation was a setback for the group.

“We advanced maybe 10 percent, but we have been set back 100 percent,” said Avila, while sitting on the bridge over the Suchiate River between Guatemala and Mexico.

“If the Mexican government does not let us through then we will have to return to Honduras where we will continue to suffer from extreme poverty and be threatened by the government,” he said. “We want to maintain the peace and find the support of the [Mexican] government in order to find opportunity.”

Central Americans, part of a caravan trying to reach the US, stand near the Mexican border gate on the bridge between Guatemala and Mexico as they try to cross into Mexico [Carlos Garcia Rawlins/Reuters] 

The Tecun Uman border crossing, the principal crossing between Guatemala and Mexico, has been closed for more than a week. Blocked from crossing, groups of Hondurans travelling up through Guatemala gathered until they had a sizable group to attempt to enter Mexico together.

After migrants and refugees broke through a border gate and tried to force their way past Guatemalan police, officers deployed tear gas, batons and flash-bang grenades. People in the crowd responded by hurling tear gas canisters back at police, along with any items they could find, including tree branches, water bottles, and even personal backpacks.

Among those injured were children, according to local news reports. Several police officers were also wounded, the Guatemalan national police force said.

The Mexican government rejected that “violent protests” took place at the border, Mexican Minister of the Interior Alfonso Navarrete said on Sunday in a press conference. 

Navarrete denied Diaz was killed by Mexican forces. Mexican federal police were not carrying any weapons, “not even plastic bullets,” he said at the press conference. But migrants and refugees as well as observers and media, including Al Jazeera, witnessed federal police firing rubber bullets.

The only way to enter Mexico is by following immigration laws, Navarrete said. He added that Mexico does not criminalise undocumented migration and mentioned that Mexico is recognised internationally for its absolute respect for migrants’ human rights.

Violates international law

But international human rights groups disagree. Amnesty International accused the government of effectively detaining more than 1,000 migrants and refugees who requested asylum in what the government has described as a shelter.

Guatemalan and Mexican official human rights commissions have also raised concerns about governmental responses to the groups of migrants and refugees travelling through both countries. 

Guatemalan human rights ombudsman Jordan Rodas lamented Diaz’s death in a statement on Sunday. He called on authorities to act within a framework of respect for human rights and privileging dialogue, and on migrants to remain peaceful.

Carla Rubio was caught up in the border chaos, having crossed onto the bridge after the crowd brought down a border fence. She was happy to finally be one step closer to Mexico and frustrated at the police repression that had occurred.

“It is inhumane what the [Guatemalan police] have done,” she told Al Jazeera.

A 38-year-old woman from Tegucigalpa, the Honduran capital, Rubio is travelling with her family, including three children. The police response was unjustified, she said.

“There was no aggression. We only wanted a dialogue,” said Rubio.

Thousands of Honduran migrants and refugees are making their way north through Mexico, fleeing violence and unemployment [Sandra Cuffe/Al Jazeera] 

Tensions remained high throughout the day. Various military and police forces were present throughout the border region, and a Mexican federal police helicopter circled overhead.

Mexican Marines were deployed in boats on the Suchiate River and made periodic announcements warning migrants against crossing into the country between official ports of entry, saying they should instead seek to apply for asylum.

But those within the caravan remain sceptical.

“They say they are going to give asylum,” Rubio told Al Jazeera, but said that “they are not providing the means, it is a lie.” 

Rubio and her family are fleeing Honduras due to the threat of violence. She and her husband want to find work and provide a better future for their family.

“Our country does not have the conditions for them,” she said of their three young children.

Most migrants and refugees fleeing north cite unemployment or violence or both as their primary reason for leaving Honduras. The country has one of the 10 highest per capita homicide rates in the world and more than two-thirds of its inhabitants live in poverty.

More threats and challenges

While some caravan participants have always planned to seek a new life in Mexico, reaching the US is the goal for most. 

But there, US President Donald Trump has threatened to cut US aid to Central American governments and to shut down the southern border of the US.

Reuters, citing an unnamed source, reported on Monday that thousands of US troops may be sent to the border. The Pentagon declined Reuters’ request for comment, saying planning was still under way. There were also unconfirmed reports last week that the White House was considering an executive order to block the migrants and refugees from entering the US.

Many families with small children are among the thousands of Honduran migrants and refugees fleeing to the US [Sandra Cuffe/Al Jazeera] 

Still more than 1,200km from the US border, the caravan participants are undeterred. Although they have been met with overwhelming support from many of the towns they’ve walked through, Mexican security have attempted to stop the group at several points along the way.

On Saturday, Mexican federal police blocked the highway and temporarily prevented the advance of the caravan through the state of Chiapas. 

Mexican police cleared out after more than two hours, after the crowd agreed to continue dialogue with the Mexican government about President Enrique Pena Nieto’s offer of temporary jobs and access to services for migrants and refugees should they choose to remain in the states of Chiapas and Oaxaca, in southern Mexico.

The offer was only made to the large initial group already travelling up through Mexico, the proposal Pena Nieto announced Friday was not directed at any new groups seeking to enter the country.

Meanwhile, hundreds of people set out Sunday from both Olancho, in eastern Honduras, and San Salvador, the capital of El Salvador.

Following the police crackdowns at the border Sunday, the group set up sleeping areas on the Guatemalan side of the border. Overnight, Guatemalan authorities reinforced and fortified a border fence with barbed wire.

On Monday, a large group set out to cross the Suchiate River into Mexico. The situation at the border is tense, but they still hope to make it into Mexico and catch up to the thousands now in the state of Oaxaca.

Jeff Abbott was reporting from Tecun Uman, Guatemala and Sandra Cuffe was reporting from Tapachula, Mexico. 

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