On Friday and Saturday (January 15 and 16) close to 6,000 people crossed into Guatemala near El Florido, Copán in Honduras as part of a massive migrant caravan. The caravan encountered resistance from Guatemalan security forces at the border but were able to get through. However, on Sunday, at Vado Hondo near Chiquimula, Guatemalan security forces turned out en masse to block the road in an effort to halt the caravan’s progress.
On January 15, Guatemala’s migration office issued a statement reiterating that entry into Guatemala from other Central American countries requires evidence of a negative COVID-19 test, and a current passport. The national police and army have set up checkpoints throughout the seven departments that border Honduras and El Salvador under the provisions of a declaration of national emergency made by the government on January 13.
As the route along main roads is increasingly being policed, people are crossing into the countryside. The total number of people attempting to cross Guatemala on the way north is by some estimates now close to 9,000. The Guatemalan military’s efforts to block the road in Vado Hondo are unlikely to have stopped all of those moving north.
It does seem that people will have a hard time crossing in large groups. Caravans became an alternate way for people to cross through Guatemala and Mexico in the 2010s, primarily as a means to provide safety from gangs that prey upon migrants. However, since 2018, caravans have increasingly become a target of official state forces, under pressure from Mexico and the United States to halt caravans and turn people back. For example, a smaller caravan was blocked from crossing Guatemala in October, with most people returned to Honduras.
For those who make it across Guatemala, the road through Mexico will prove even more difficult. The Mexican government has placed soldiers from the newly created National Guard along the border, starting in 2019, under pressure from the Trump administration. These detachments will be reinforced. Indeed, the government issued a statement earlier in January making clear that they would not allow a caravan to enter the country.
Should people enter in smaller groups anyway, the going is still tough. The routes heading north from Mexico’s border with Guatemala have limited options. La Bestia – the train line made famous for carrying migrants north – no longer runs. Buses are now required to check for identification and visas. Travel is thus slowed, with many essentially forced to walk. Finally, under the provisions of different state laws governing Mexico’s response to COVID, many migrant shelters were forced to close last year, with only a few now reopened. For those on foot, finding shelter and provisions on the month- to two-month-long journey through Mexico has become that much harder.
What all of this means, is that the efforts of governments in Guatemala and Mexico to crack down on migrants have not and will not stop people from attempting the crossing – but have made the journey more dangerous. The same is true of the U.S., where Border Patrol apprehensions are averaging well over 60,000 people a month since October 1 – despite Trump closing the border and turning everyone away with no chance to seek asylum or other relief.
While some participants in the caravan hold out hope that President Biden’s administration will be more open to migrants than Trump, an assertion that members of Biden’s team are somewhat pushing back against , the real driver here is desperation. Given the current context in Honduras, as well as Guatemala and El Salvador, it seems likely that many more people will continue to press north.
The current situation in Honduras is particularly bleak. The people of the country entered into 2020 facing violent gangs, and an inept administration – many members of which, including the president himself, have ties to the very drug cartels they are supposed to be combatting. Then COVID-19 struck Honduras hard. The government’s use of a lock-down, enforced with increased state violence, proved largely ineffective in halting the spread of the disease. Along with much of the region, Honduras sunk into a deep recession.
It is important to remember that Juan Orlando Hernandez’s presidency is in no small part the result of U.S. support for the consolidation of the coup d’etat against President Manuel Zelaya in 2009; support that has been extended under President Trump since Hernandez won re-election in 2017 in a process rife with irregularities and marred by violence.
On top of all of this, Honduras was then slammed with two hurricanes, Eta and Iota, within two weeks of each other in November. The storms destroyed crops and flooded communities all along the northern zones of the country. With millions of people displaced in Honduras and Guatemala from these storms, and state capacity to provide assistance severely weakened by years of corruption and economic stagnation, a mass migration north is inevitable.
Meanwhile, back in Vado Hondo, the Guatemalan military which had blocked the progress of the caravan the previous day, forcibly opened the road to traffic on Monday (January 18) – pushing the caravan to the side of the highway and forcing many people back toward the Honduran crossing near El Florido.
Sandra Cuffe, “‘I was so scared’: Guatemalan forces disperse migrant caravan” AL Jazeera, January 19, 2021
“Guatemalan troops forcibly clear migrant caravan from highway” Guardian, January 18, 2021
Luis Echeverria, “Guatemalan military clears U.S.-bound migrant caravan from road” Reuters, January 18, 2021
Jason Beaubien, “Migrant Caravan: Thousands Move Into Guatemala, Hoping To Reach U.S.” NPR, January 18, 2021
“Crisis Migratoria: Policía de Guatemala hace retroceder a caravana de hondureños con gas lacrimógeno” Prensa Libre, January 17, 2021
Tom Phillips, “Migrant caravan trekking north to US border clashes with Guatemalan troops” Guardian, January 17, 2021
Kirk Semple and Nic Wirtz, “Migrant Caravan, Now in Guatemala, Tests Regional Resolve to Control Migration” New York Times, January 17, 2021
Julia Ansley, “Incoming Biden administration to migrant caravan: Don’t come, you won’t get in immediately” NBC News, January 17, 2021i
Sandra Cuffe, “Fleeing the pandemic and two hurricanes, thousands of migrants walk toward the U.S.,” Los Angeles Times, January 16, 2021
Haiti’s president, Jovenal Moise, and his electoral council have proposed a timeline for elections that include a referendum on a new constitution. At the same time, there is disagreement about Moise’s tenure in office, with opposition leaders and some legal scholars saying Moise should step down on February 7 this year. Moise, disagrees. The timeline his electoral council has submitted assumes he stays in office another year.
Haiti has not had a sitting parliament since January 13, 2020. Parliamentary elections, supposed to be held in the fall of 2019, were not held in time. As a result there were not enough members of Parliament to achieve a quorum (and vote on a new election law). Later in the year terms for most local officials also expired without elections to fill posts. One estimate is that there are only 11 elected officials serving in the entire country at the moment. Since January 2020, Moise has ruled by decree.
It is important to keep in mind that massive demonstrations in the summer of 2018 brought about the resignation of the government. A new prime minister was then forced out of office again amidst protests in February of 2019. During the fall of 2019 lasting through the beginning of 2020, the country was locked down as the result of protests calling for Moise to resign.
With U.S. backing, Moise has prevailed through it all. Over the last year, with Moise ruling by decree, there has been an increase in violence by non-state actors (evidence suggests in many cases they are aligned with police), including political assassinations. Protests have been met with state violence as well. In December Moise issued an executive decree increasing penalties for protest and initiating new intelligence services.
Opposition voices, both in the streets and among a divided political class, are demanding Moise leave – before elections and constitutional reforms proceed. Moise’s election was itself problematic. He “won” in a highly contested election – one with two rounds of balloting as the first round was cancelled due to accusations of corruption. Because there was a delay in Moise taking office, he has argued his tenure should extend another year. The opposition says no! He must leave on February 7, 2021 as originally scheduled. Moise’s predecessor, Michel Martelly, left office on February 7, 2016.
With most eyes in the country on February 7 (which this year marks the 35th anniversary of Jean Claude Dulavier’s resignation and flight from the country amidst widespread protest), Moise is looking ahead.
What Moise is proposing is a referendum on changes to Haiti’s constitution in April of 2021, and then to hold national elections on September 19, 2021, for parliament and the presidency. On November 21, local elections will be held, alongside runoffs (as needed) for national posts. To approve and implement this timeline, Moise appointed a 9-member electoral commission, by decree, of course. Which is to say, the whole process is already illegal, at least under the existing constitution.
As far as the new constitution goes, it has not been made public yet. However, some of the changes possibly in-store were leaked. From the Miami Herald:
Among the biggest changes, according to an interview with Louis Naud Pierre on Port-au-Prince-based Magik 9 radio station earlier this week, is the elimination of the post of prime minister and the Haitian Senate, and the introduction of governors for each region.
The United States and the Organization of American States, which split intervention duties in Haiti when it comes to elections, have given divided messages. Both are standing with Moise, and his authority to oversee elections, but the U.S. wants those elections held immediately. The OAS agrees with a quick timeline for elections, though has, in previous statements, accepted the extended tenure for Moise. Biden’s campaign has only said he would “work with the international community” to ensure elections happen soon. What the U.S. position will be concerning the election timeline once he takes office is not exactly clear.
Meanwhile, the opposition is arguing for Moise to step down on schedule (Feb 7, 2021), to be replaced by a transitional authority that would oversee new elections. Such an exercise in self-determination is not likely to be supported by the U.S. or the OAS, but we’ll see. Perhaps the Biden administration will be too busy dealing with fallout from our own electoral crisis to weigh in too heavily on Haiti’s.
So, we wait. The days leading up to February 7th and whatever follows, could well lead the country into another lock down, and/or much more violence. Moise seems determined to hold power – for now – and has decreed himself an enormous amount of authority to use force if he decides it is necessary. The opposition is still refusing to accept a process that involves him, which for now leaves them the bully pulpit of opposition media, and the streets. For the majority of Haitians this means a good chance that there will be more disruptions to their lives and work. Even if most are sympathetic to opposition demands, people are clearly weary of the conflict.
The Quixote Center works with, and is the fiscal sponsor in the United States for the Franciscam Network on Migration. The network coordinates the activity of shelters in Central America, Mexico and the United States that serve migrant communities – principally, though not exclusively, from Central America. Our work with the Franciscan Network has also brought us into coalition work with Franciscans International and other groups that address multilateral issues concerning migration as well. Below we offer a few updates from this work.
Following hurricanes Eta and Iota, which both struck Honduras (and Nicaragua) within two weeks of each other, and followed nearly identical paths, Franciscan shelters in Tegucigalpa began offering services to people who were suffering from trauma. This led to a more formal program to mobilize therapists, and therapy students from universities in the country to provide therapy services to children suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and related anxiety.
In December, the Quixote Center facilitated delivery of $4,500 to support this effort. If you would like to offer support to the Network for this and projects like it, you can do that here. Having funds available to meet critical needs is one of the key ways we can support migrants and mitigate the conditions that often give rise to migration in the first place.
The Franciscan Network is looking for volunteers to help staff shelters and other sites in Mexico (Frontera Digna in Piedras Negras and La 72 in Tenosique), Honduras (Tegucigalpa) and the United States (Migrant Center in New York City). Since Spanish is necessary for nearly all of the sites, the application form and information are only available in Spanish. For several opportunities (including NYC), room and board is not provided, so one must either be local or have access to room and board in the area.
You can find out more information, and application details here.
The Committee on Justice, Peace and the Integrity of Creation of the Order of Friars Minor in Mexico is sponsoring a nine-part course on both theoretical and practical concerns related to the situation of migrants. The course will be offered entirely in Spanish on Wednesday nights from January 20-March 17, from 9:00-11:00 p.m. ET. If you are interested, more details are available here and you can register here.