On Monday 18 January, Guatemalan security forces dispersed thousands of mostly Honduran migrants who were making their way across the nation, seeking eventual asylum in the United States. In the south-eastern village of Vado Hondo, police and military personnel used varying degrees of force against members of the first major migrant caravan of the new year. According to AP, authorities went as far as employing tear gas and batons on the group, with hopes of deterring them from continuing their journey north. For days, the caravan had been blocked by Guatemalan forces on an important highway in the rural locality. The standoff between the Honduran migrants and the Guatemalan government continues, and now Mexico vows to block any additional migrants who reach their border.
Previously, citizens of the Northern Triangle (Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador) enjoyed relative freedom of movement across their borders, as all three countries recognize migrating as a human right. Now, however, the COVID-19 pandemic has vastly restricted the free movement across borders of all travelers in the region. In Guatemala, the government now requires a negative coronavirus test upon arrival, which also complicates travel as many migrants simply do not have access to testing centres and are not able to social distance properly due to their precarious situation. Additionally, both Guatemala and Mexico have further tightened their borders in response to threats from the former Trump administration, which took an extremely hardline stance against immigration of any sort. As reported by the Washington Post, Guatemala’s Foreign Minister, Pedro Brolo, said that the Honduran migrants’ entry “violated national sovereignty.” Conversely, Guatemala’s Human Rights Ombudsman, Jordán Rodas, called the government’s response to the caravan crossing “deplorable.”
It is estimated that as many as 9,000 migrants have crossed Guatemala’s border since Friday 15 January. As reported by the Washington Post, it is believed that the majority of these migrants departed from the city of San Pedro Sula in northern Honduras early that morning. Over the past several months, social and economic conditions in Honduras have been especially dire, with multiple hurricanes and the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbating an already catastrophic humanitarian disaster faced by many of the nation’s citizens.
For decades, the deep-rooted issues of chronic poverty and violence have been driving inhabitants of the Northern Triangle (and especially Hondurans) to migrate abroad. Because of widespread poverty, many Central Americans choose to emigrate to find better employment opportunities and ultimately send money to relatives at home. Notably, the Northern Triangle is among the poorest regions in the Western Hemisphere. In a 2019 Statista report, it was noted that all three Northern Triangle countries (along with Nicaragua) ranked in the bottom quartile for GDP per capita among Latin American and Caribbean states. In addition to the Northern Triangle’s long-standing poverty and limited employment opportunities, the region has been ravaged by deep-rooted violence. Decades of civil war and political instability have engendered a complex criminal ecosystem, which includes transnational gangs like Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and the Eighteenth Street Gang (M-18). According to the Council of Foreign Relations, the Northern Triangle countries have also accounted for the highest homicide rates in the world for decades, with the murders frequently connected to drug trafficking and organized crime. This has resulted in significant increases in Central Americans seeking asylum from gang-based violence and a high risk of death. Moreover, recent UN data shows that El Salvador and Honduras have Latin America’s highest rates of femicide. As such, women in the region are also fleeing gender-based violence, which is largely attributed to the machismo culture that plagues Latin American societies.
It is clear that most migrants are not emigrating with malicious intent; they are leaving because they live in unbearable conditions. Even though there is a global pandemic and a new U.S. administration that is not yet ready to deal with migratory streams, the long-standing issues facing these migrants have all but disappeared. Regardless of the Guatemalan government’s right to control their borders, their harsh and violent response to the migrant caravan only increases the pain and suffering already experienced by this extremely vulnerable population.
These migrants’ problems have intensified during the past year, and there seems to be no end in sight. Given this, if governments truly want to stop a mass exodus of people from the Northern Triangle, they have to wholeheartedly address the root causes of these people’s misfortunes. Particularly, donors to the region must invest in non-profit and civil society organizations that are committed to promoting economic and agricultural development, combating crime and violence, reintegrating returning or deported migrants, fighting endemic corruption, and seeking to strengthen democratic governance. Without effective and sustained aid, conditions in the Northern Triangle are likely to deteriorate, and mass migration will continue to ensue.
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