Thousands of Honduran migrants marched north Wednesday in a bold attempt to reach the United States, defying threats from US president Donald Trump to stop aid to countries that let their “caravan” pass.
Mr Trump – who took aim at Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador on Tuesday – kept up his attacks on the caravan on Wednesday, saying it should be an important issue for Republican candidates in the upcoming midterm elections.
“Hard to believe that with thousands of people from South of the Border walking unimpeded towards our country in the form of large caravans, that the Democrats won’t allow legislation that will allow laws for the protection of our country.”
“Republicans must make the horrendous, weak and outdated immigration laws, and the border, a part of the midterms,” the US president said on Twitter.
Exhausted by tramping for hours in the sun and rain, a vanguard group of around a thousand Hondurans took refuge Wednesday in a church-sponsored shelter in the centre of the Guatemalan capital.
“This is the beginning of an avalanche that is coming, because we can no longer endure so much violence,” said Denis Contreras, who fled Honduras with his sister and two nieces.
Mr Contreras, wearing the red shirt of the Honduran national soccer team, said there’s no going back to his Central American country he says is strangled by poverty and violence. Leaving the country “is already frowned upon” by Honduras’ gangs and returning would be a death sentence, he said.
Their objective now is to regain strength and press on towards the border with Mexico.
A second group moved across the border into Guatemala on Monday afternoon and have reached the city of Esquipulas.
The caravan of more than 2,000 migrants left last Saturday from the northern Honduran city of San Pedro Sula after organising themselves on social media.
On Monday, a large contingent of police on the Guatemalan border tried to turn them back, but after an hours-long standoff, the marchers prevailed and managed to reach Esquipulas. They moved on in smaller groups to Guatemala City.
Maria Ramos said she decided to join the march north after seeing the caravan pass by her village of Ocotepeque on the Guatemalan border.
“When we saw them go by, we decided to leave as well,” said the Honduran woman. Her family was barely surviving on maize and beans in the arid border region, she said.
Meanwhile, the Honduran Observatory of Human Rights expressed “serious concern” over the detention of journalist and migrants’ rights defender Bartolo Fuentes on the Guatemalan border as he accompanied the caravan.
Guatemalan president Jimmy Morales told reporters his country was working with humanitarian organisations to provide food and shelter for the migrants.
But he said the “unregistered massive influx” was putting “people and countries at risk.”
“We cannot ensure that everyone has Honduran nationality or origin, nor that they have the destination they claim to have.”
Many are at risk from human traffickers, he said.
Mr Morales said he discussed the crisis with Honduran counterpart Juan Orlando Hernandez and US vice president Mike Pence.
In a makeshift dormitory at the shelter’s gymnasium, Maria Ramos, 43, ate breakfast cereal with her 15-year-old daughter before leaving for a bus terminal to travel to the border with Mexico.
They plan to reach the Mexican state of Chiapas, whose governor Manuel Velasco said he would welcome migrants despite a federal government warning that undocumented migrants would be stopped at the border.
The migrants’ dream is to get asylum in the US, work and help their relatives who stayed behind, said Sairi Bueso, 24, pushing her two-year old daughter in a pram.
With a homicide rate of 43 per 100,000 inhabitants, Honduras is considered one of the world’s most violent countries, mainly due to gangs and drug trafficking, a situation largely mirrored in neighbouring Guatemala and El Salvador.
In addition, 68 percent of Honduras’ nine million population live in poverty, according to the UN.