SAN PEDRO SULA, Honduras (AP) — About 200 migrants began walking up a highway toward the border with Guatemala late Wednesday, two days before a migrant caravan was scheduled to depart San Pedro Sula.
Some 75 police officers dressed in riot gear waited at a point farther along the highway on the outskirts of San Pedro Sula. One officer said the intention was to stop the migrants for violating a pandemic-related curfew, check their documents and make sure they weren't traveling with children that were not their own.
Later, the migrants stopped about two kilometers short of the waiting police and bedded down for the night under and around a highway overpass. They planned to wait until the curfew expired at 5 a.m. before continuing.
The migrants faced the additional challenge of governments that agreed earlier this week to enforce immigration laws at their borders.
For weeks, a call for a new caravan departing Jan. 15 has circulated on social networks. In previous caravans, smaller groups have often left earlier than the main caravan. More migrants were expected to converge on San Pedro Sula on Thursday.
Ariel Villega, 35, from the town of Ocotepeque, was walking with his wife and 10-year-old son. He said they planned to get to the Corinto border crossing and wait there for the rest of the caravan to arrive.
"We’ve got everything, the passport and the COVID test,” Villega said. He said they were leaving because he couldn’t find work. “First the pandemic and later the two (hurricanes) left us in crisis.”
Guatemalan President Alejandro Giammattei on Wednesday night decreed a “state of prevention” along the country's border with Honduras. The decree noted the threat of migrants entering without required documentation and without following pandemic-related screening at the border. Guatemala is requiring proof of a negative COVID-19 test. The decree said more than 2,000 national police and soldiers would be stationed at the border.
The Mexican government said Wednesday that it and 10 other countries in North and Central America are worried about the health risks of COVID-19 among migrants without proper documents.
The statement by the 11-member Regional Conference on Migration suggests that Mexico and Central America could continue to turn back migrants on the basis of the perceived risks of the pandemic.
The group “expressed concern over the exposure of irregular migrants to situations of high risk to their health and their lives, primarily during the health emergency.”
On Monday, representatives from Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador met in the Honduran city of Corinto at the Guatemala border to discuss coordination on migration.
In a joint statement, the governments expressed their commitment to protect human rights, but also called for migration to be orderly and legal.
When hundreds of Hondurans tried to form a caravan last month, authorities stopped them before they even reached the Guatemala border. Other attempted caravans last year were broken up by Guatemalan authorities before they reached Mexico.
Pressure to migrate has only been building. Central America was hit with two Category 4 hurricanes in November, devastating a region already struggling with the pandemic. The storms destroyed crops, shuttered businesses and displaced thousands.
Migrants have also expressed hope that they could receive a warmer welcome at the U.S. border under the administration of President-elect Joe Biden, who takes office next week.
Associated Press writers Sonny Figueroa in Guatemala City and Mark Stevenson in Mexico City contributed to this report.