On January 18, hundreds of Guatemalan soldiers armed with batons and wooden poles, backed by the Guatemalan National Civilian Police, violently confronted and dispersed thousands of Honduran migrants and asylum seekers who had formed a caravan in the hope of reaching the United States.
As the tear gas cleared, the estimated 8,000 Hondurans—fleeing poverty, the destruction caused by two consecutive hurricanes, and both state and gang violence—were pushed off the highway in Vado Hondo, Chiquimula, in eastern Guatemala. Thousands were forced to return to Honduras. Some managed to slip through the police lines but were later detained along Guatemala’s border with Mexico.
Guatemala’s violent disbanding of the first caravan of 2021 was widely denounced by migrant rights advocates, but it was praised by the US State Department, with Michael Kozak, the acting assistant secretary for Western Hemisphere affairs, tweeting his support of the violent eviction on the final day of the Trump administration. Days later, on January 22, US Ambassador William Popp held a joint press conference with Guatemala’s foreign minister, Pedro Brolo, and Mexico’s ambassador to Guatemala, Romeo Ruíz Armento, to declare that the three countries will not tolerate migrant caravans.
The United States has for years exported the control of migratory routes to Mexico and Central America. The repression of the most recent Honduran migrant caravan highlights this shift, but the effort began much earlier, during the Obama administration. As Col. Oscar Pérez Figueroa, the spokesperson for the Guatemalan military at the time, told me in 2017 in an interview about border security in Guatemala, “The US changes the president, but they continue the same politics that prioritize actions for the national security of the US.”
Indeed, in his first presidential term, Obama increased US support for migratory controls in southern Mexico. That effort led Alan Bersin, Obama’s “border czar,” to declare in 2012 that “the Guatemalan border with Chiapas is now our southern border.” These efforts were intensified following the arrival of thousands of unaccompanied minors to the US border in 2014, when Mexico’s president at the time, Enrique Peña Nieto, announced the establishment of Programa Frontera Sur.
Mexico’s aggressive policing of migrants continued after populist leader Andrés Manuel López Obrador was elected president. In January 2020, the Mexican National Guard, which he had created the previous year, confronted and violently stopped a caravan of thousands of Honduras. The migrants were loaded onto buses and deported back to their home country. Mexico is thus increasingly a barrier to migrants rather than a way station. According to the Guatemalan Institute of Migration, in 2020 Mexico deported nearly 23,000 Guatemalans.
But as Todd Miller points out, the increased repression is not just limited to Guatemala and Mexico. The United States is expanding the border apparatus across the hemisphere and the world. These operations include strengthening of border security in Panama, Colombia, the Caribbean, and elsewhere. This has led to a new world of borders confronting migrants from all over the Global South.
This is….really terrible.
Guatemala is ruled by a right-wing extremist. AMLO is Mexico has no ideological consistency at all and was more than happy to do Trump’s bidding while claiming to be a leftist. These leaders are happy to play the thug role for the U.S. The question is going to be what a Biden administration does here. He can continue this history. Obama was pretty bad on it. But on a lot of issues, this administration is clearly to the left of Obama. Will that be true in terms of Central America and migration? Perhaps only if we make a stink about this.