Guatemalan security forces on Sunday used sticks and tear gas to beat back a large migrant caravan bound for the US, just days before the Biden administration takes office.
The new administration is already urging the migrants to abandon their journey.
Up to 8,000 migrants, including families with young children, have entered Guatemala over the weekend, authorities say, fleeing poverty and violence in a region battered by the coronavirus pandemic and back-to-back hurricanes in November.
A large section of the caravan clashed early on Sunday with around 3,000 Guatemalan security forces about 55km from the borders of Honduras and El Salvador.
“We want the Guatemalans to let us past,” said Joaquin Ortiz, a Honduran in the caravan. “Because we’re not leaving here. We’re going to carry on. I want to get through because it’s horrible in our country. There’s nothing in Honduras.”
The security officers managed to stop the migrants, with around half of them fleeing into the nearby hills or heading back the way they came, according to a Reuters witness.
Elmer Espinal is walking with his baby daughter. He said they were tear gassed by the Guatemalan security forces.
“My daughter almost choked,” said Espinal, a Honduran native. “I want a future for my girls. There’s no work back there in Honduras.”
Authorities sent buses and trucks for migrants who wanted to voluntarily return home.
Even if the migrants do get past, Mexico is preparing to stop them at its southern border with hundreds of security forces. Authorities there say they must contain the spread of the virus.
The robust response suggests that president-elect Joe Biden may initially benefit from the hardline policies of outgoing Republican President Donald Trump, who made cracking down on illegal immigration a priority of his administration.
The first migrant caravan of the year comes less than a week before Biden takes office on Wednesday promising to adopt a more humane approach to migration than Trump.
Still, a Biden transition official advised people not to make for the US, saying, “The journey to the United States remains extraordinarily dangerous, and those in the region should not believe anyone peddling the lie that our border will be open to everyone next month.”