Migrants clash with Mexican troops at the Guatemala border

A Central American migrant – part of a caravan of mostly Hondurans traveling to the US- is tackled by a member of Mexico’s National Guard after crossing the Suchiate River on January 20, 2020. (Photo by JOHAN ORDONEZ/AFP via Getty Images)

(CNN) — Tensions flared on Mexico’s southern border Monday as troops tried to intercept a large group of migrants who’d crossed into the country.

Video and photographs taken at the Mexico-Guatemala border showed Mexican National Guard troops chasing migrants who’d rushed across the Suchiate River.

Some images showed migrants scrambling to evade authorities. Others showed a migrant pinned to the ground, surrounded by men in camouflage.

The migrants — largely from Honduras — are part of a new caravan that’s been trekking north for days. It’s the first migrant caravan to form since the Trump administration hashed out a series of deals with Mexico and several Central American countries aimed at stemming migration.

And its arrival in Mexico is already testing authorities on both sides of the border.

For months Mexican authorities, facing mounting pressure from US officials, have stepped up their show of force at the country’s northern and southern borders. Dramatic visuals — like troops running after mothers and children or blocking large groups of migrants walking along a highway — have prompted many to say that Mexico, in effect, has already built Trump’s border wall by increasingly cracking down on immigrants.

Mexico says it welcomes migrants to stay

Mexico’s foreign minister defended the National Guard’s actions and downplayed Monday’s standoff in a press conference Tuesday, telling reporters that no one had been injured, that troops had handled the situation appropriately and that more than 2,000 other migrants traveling in large groups had followed migration laws, crossing peacefully and without incident in recent days.

“Yesterday there was a group of some 1,000 who tried to enter the country by force. A tragedy was avoided, because there can always be a lot of problems, above all when there are children and women,” Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard said.

Mexican officials earlier said migrants in the group had hurled projectiles at troops as they tried to enter the country “in an irregular manner.” More than 400 of them were intercepted and taken to migration stations.

“Despite the stones they were hit with, and a very tense situation, we can say that yesterday, if someone had the intention to provoke, they did not achieve that,” Ebrard said. “If someone is looking for violence in Mexico, they are not going to find it on the part of authorities.”

Asked by a reporter whether he would characterize the situation as a crisis or an emergency, Ebrard said he would not.

“It isn’t an emergency because it happens every year. The same thing happened last year,” he said.

But photos of the clashes at the border dominated the front pages of many Mexican newspapers on Tuesday.

It was another notable sign that Mexico’s approach to caravans, and to migrants in general, has changed over the past year.

Roadblocks on the journey north to the US

Officials are no longer giving migrants transit passes that would allow them to legally travel through Mexico on the way to the US border. Instead, they’re encouraging them to seek asylum in Mexico or temporary work permits. Those who don’t want to pursue the options available to remain in Mexico — or who don’t qualify — are given the option of “assisted return” to their home countries, Ebrard said.

Some 1,000 Honduran migrants, he said, have asked to be returned to their home country. Others are still being processed at different migration stations, Ebrard said.

“The instructions of the president have been categorical, to respect the human rights of migrants,” Mexican Interior Minister Olga Sanchez Cordero said Tuesday.

“Mexico is a place of asylum, of refuge,” she said.

US officials have said they’re monitoring the latest migrant caravan. As migrants trekked through Guatemala last week, acting US Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf said he saw the group as notably different.

“I will say that this caravan is not anything even remotely similar to what we saw in ’18 and a little bit in ’19,” Wolf told Fox. “A few folks here and a few folks there.”

Wolf said that agreements the US has made with Mexico, Guatemala and Honduras have changed the equation when it comes to large groups of migrants.

“We have CBP agents, tactical agents, in Guatemala. And of course the government of Mexico at President Trump’s urging has deployed national guard to both their southern and northern border,” Wolf said. “So, should individuals make it through all of that, when they reach the Southwest border, they’re going to run into a number of programs that we put in place that will not allow them into the country without any legal reason to be there.”

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