It was late afternoon by the time Vinicio made it across the border, but it was not the border that he wanted to cross. While the world watched President Joseph Biden’s inauguration ceremony on January 20, Vinicio and his family were sitting on a bus with other migrants and asylum-seekers whom Guatemalan authorities were sending back across the El Florido border crossing into Honduras.
Vinicio, his wife, and their three children left their home in southern Honduras to head north to Mexico, fleeing death threats from a criminal group trying to recruit him to deal drugs, said Vinicio, who requested that his real name not be used because of fears for his personal safety. They made it nearly 600 miles, skirting military and police checkpoints in Guatemala to arrive at Mexico’s southern border.
“We could see the river,” said Vinicio, referring to the Suchiate River that separates Guatemala from the Mexican state of Chiapas. “We were having a meal on top of a hill.”
The family was figuring out where they might be able to cross into Mexico undetected, but they never got the chance to try. In response to a migrant caravan Vinicio and his family and some 7,500 other Hondurans had joined, Guatemala deployed roughly 2,000 police and soldiers, setting up checkpoints around the country. Police patrolling the border region found the family, and they became five of the nearly 5,000 Hondurans sent back over the course of 11 days.
“We can’t go home,” Vinicio said after getting off the bus at the El Florido border crossing, keeping an eye on his two youngest children. The girls, ages 2 and 3, were laughing and playing on a railing outside the Honduran immigration offices. Their father was wracked with stress. “We will hide out until we can leave again,” he said.
Crackdowns on migrant caravans in recent years have come amid U.S. pressure on Mexico and Central American countries to stop migrants and asylum-seekers long before they reach the U.S. southern border. Regional militarization in response to migration increased during the administration of President Donald Trump, but it was a continuation of bipartisan efforts to contain migration from President Barack Obama’s tenure in office — efforts that will likely continue under Biden.
“Border policies respond to anti-immigration policies that come from up north,” Julia González, director of Guatemala’s National Migration Roundtable, a nongovernmental initiative that has been around for more than two decades, told The Intercept. “These policies have increasingly made countries that expel their own population take action to contain their citizens and others who transit through their countries.”
Migration from Central America became a key focus for the U.S. in 2014 when there was a sharp increase in the number of unaccompanied minors arriving at the border. The Department of Homeland Security, the Department of State, and the Department of Defense began ramping up training and other support for border security forces in the region, providing equipment and sometimes embedding U.S. advisers in operations. The stated focus is usually to support efforts to combat drug trafficking, contraband smuggling, or human trafficking in border regions, but governments often blur the lines between human trafficking and irregular migration.
Some analysts argue that the U.S. southern border has been effectively pushed to the Mexico-Guatemala border or other borders farther south. “The Guatemalan border with Chiapas is now our southern border,” said Homeland Security official Alan Bersin in a 2012 speech. But that does not reflect the reality on the ground, according to many migrants and researchers in Central America and Mexico. The issue is not so much that the U.S. border line has been pushed south but that the border has expanded to fill every space in between.
“The vertical border is any immigration official, police, military, or other force migrants encounter who blocks their way.”
“We use the concept of the ‘vertical border,’” said Rosario Martínez, a Guatemalan researcher working on migration issues with the Latin American Social Sciences Institute. “The vertical border is any immigration official, police, military, or other force migrants encounter who blocks their way.”
The term was used years ago to describe immigration enforcement in Mexico in response to U.S. pressure, but over time, the concept of the vertical border has become more and more applicable in Guatemala and, to a lesser degree, in Honduras and El Salvador. While it continued to support border police and enforcement in the region, the Trump administration also signed a series of bilateral deals with Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador on immigration, border security, and asylum that increased pressure on refugees.
Shortly after his inauguration, Biden began signing executive orders repealing several of the Trump administration’s more hardline immigration restrictions and halted new admissions to the Migrant Protection Protocols, better known as the “Remain in Mexico” program, which forced tens of thousands of asylum-seekers to wait in Mexico while the U.S. adjudicated their claims. Biden has also signaled his intention to repeal the asylum cooperation agreements with Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador. But there is no indication that Biden intends to repeal additional border security agreements with the three countries, and there is no indication that the vertical border is going anywhere.
Mexico began cracking down on migrant caravans with National Guard troops long before the pandemic hit, but Guatemala only truly militarized its response in recent months. Honduran, Salvadoran, and Nicaraguan adults do not need a passport to enter Guatemala, but all foreigners must now present negative Covid-19 test results upon entry. When a large Honduran migrant caravan set out for the U.S. in October 2020, Guatemala decreed a “state of prevention,” suspending constitutional guarantees such as freedom of assembly in regions bordering Honduras and arguing that the caravan threatened public health and national security. Police and military forces blocked and fragmented the exodus, eventually sending nearly 4,000 people back to the Honduran border.
“During the pandemic, it is understood that very large groups run a greater risk of contagion, but there cannot be a national security approach versus a human security approach that centers the migrant population,” said González.
“The armed forces are participating in actions totally outside the scope of their mandate.”
Throughout Guatemala and Mexico and up to the U.S. border, militarization along migrant routes pushes people into more isolated and dangerous areas. Tens of thousands of migrants and asylum-seekers have disappeared in transit through Mexico.
“We are worried the number of people who disappear in transit will increase,” said González. “Even if migrants are witnesses to human rights violations against other people, they do not stop to file a report. … They do not approach [Guatemalan] police because they will be detained.”
The Guatemalan government should address migrant caravans with a humanitarian and rights-based approach, send personnel to safeguard their entry, and deploy mobile Ministry of Health units to test people for Covid-19, said González. “These are people who are fleeing extreme poverty and extreme violence. We cannot ask them to get a Covid test if they are not done in the public health system,” she said.
Guatemala’s response to the caravan was similar to the crackdown in October. A 15-day state of prevention was enacted on January 14, and several hundred police and military members blocked the group’s advance in Vado Hondo, a village in southeastern Guatemala, after thousands of migrants and asylum-seekers made it 27 miles on foot into the country from Honduras and were joined by a few hundred Salvadorans. On January 18, the security forces evicted the group from the highway, effectively disbanding the caravan. Small groups continued to advance into Mexico, but the majority of the caravan was sent back to Honduras.
The use of force and the involvement of the military in the crackdown on migrants and asylum-seekers in the country’s interior sparked widespread condemnation from Guatemalan human rights and migrant rights advocacy groups. “The armed forces are participating in actions totally outside the scope of their mandate,” Iduvina Hernández, director of the Association for the Promotion and Study of Security in Democracy, told The Intercept. “It is a complete violation of the laws of the country, of the constitution, and of international law.”
The 15-day state of prevention lapsed on January 28. “There will be no extension,” presidential communications secretary Patricia Letona told The Intercept. Guatemalan immigration officials have withdrawn from checkpoints in the interior, a spokesperson from the Guatemalan Immigration Institute told The Intercept on Friday. Army spokesperson Rubén Tellez told The Intercept that although some troops remain as “a dissuasive presence,” the control points are now in the deactivation phase.
National Civilian Police spokesperson Edwin Monroy told The Intercept on Friday that although the state of prevention is over, regular police operations continue in “different points of the country and especially on the highways.”
U.S. pressure on governments in the region to crack down on future migrant caravans and irregular migration in general is unlikely to change. On January 22, two days after Biden took office, the Guatemalan government and the U.S. and Mexican ambassadors in Guatemala held a press conference together to reiterate their joint position.
“Our border remains closed to those who try to enter in an illegal/irregular manner. No one who decides to take those steps will enter the United States. Those who try to cross the border in an illegal or irregular manner will be immediately sent back,” wrote William Popp, the U.S. ambassador to Guatemala, in a statement published in Spanish on the embassy’s website. “We continue to work with the government of Guatemala and with Mexico and we thank the excellent efforts made to date and we remain committed to help each other in these joint efforts.”
Biden’s $4 billion plan for northern Central America puts development aid back into the mix alongside security. He also intends to return to efforts to combat corruption and uphold the rule of law in the region, which have bipartisan support. But decades of U.S. support for coups, dictatorships, and military forces that committed crimes against humanity have created the conditions for the organized crime, corruption networks, and failures of the rule of law that are, in turn, driving people to flee the region.
When the Honduran military ousted elected president Manuel Zelaya in 2009 and flew him out of the country, they first made a stop at the joint U.S.-Honduran Soto Cano Air Base, home to U.S. Southern Command’s Joint Task Force-Bravo. Officially, they landed there to refuel, but many Hondurans believe the stop was to obtain a green light from the United States.
Violence and drug trafficking spiked following the coup, and the political crisis never really ended. The U.S. government recognized the 2017 reelection of Honduran president Juan Orlando Hernández despite widespread allegations of fraud, sparking months of mass protest and repression. Hernández is an unindicted co-conspirator in a U.S. federal court case against his brother, Antonio Hernández — a former member of the National Congress of Honduras — who is awaiting his sentence after his 2019 conviction on cocaine trafficking and weapons charges.
Decades earlier, the U.S. supported Guatemalan and Salvadoran military forces that massacred entire villages of civilians in the midst of civil wars with leftist guerrilla forces. Two young men I spoke with in Guatemala, Osman, 23, and Darwin, 19, who requested their last names not be used, were born after peace accords ended the conflicts, but their homes in northeastern Honduras are in what used to be the Regional Center for Military Training, known as CREM. In the early 1980s, U.S. military advisers there trained Honduran and Salvadoran forces in counterinsurgency tactics that were also deployed against unarmed dissidents.
“We are from Guadalupe Carney,” said Osman at the La Ruidosa military checkpoint in eastern Guatemala, where the two young men were slowly advancing in a line to board a bus back to Honduras. Guadalupe Carney is a community established by landless peasant farmers’ movements that occupied CREM lands in 2000. It is named after James Carney, known in Honduras as Father Guadalupe Carney, a U.S. priest who supported peasant farmer rights in the region and renounced his U.S. citizenship. He also ministered to a leftist Honduran guerrilla force and is believed to have been captured and killed by the U.S.-backed Honduran military in 1983.
Osman and Darwin joined the migrant caravan in search of work, which had always been informal but dried up completely due to the lockdown measures and economic downturn related to the coronavirus pandemic. “Sometimes we worked in fishing. Sometimes we worked cutting palm,” Osman said. “Now there is no work.”
Many of the migrants and asylum-seekers at the La Ruidosa checkpoint were resigned or dejected as they waited for their names to be called out by Guatemalan officials to board the bus back to Honduras. Osman and Darwin were upbeat and undeterred. They had entered Guatemala with an early migrant caravan group the morning of January 15, and as soon as they were dropped off at one border crossing, they planned to immediately loop down through Honduras and catch up with the main caravan group on its way to the El Florido border crossing into Guatemala.