By Santiago Billy and Christopher Sherman, Associated Press
TECUN UMAN, Guatemala (AP) — Hundreds of Central Americans following in the footsteps of a thousands-strong migrant caravan making its way toward the U.S. border crossed a river from Guatemala into Mexico on Monday, defying a heavy Federal Police presence deployed to patrol that country’s southern frontier.
A low-flying police helicopter hovered overhead as the migrants waded in large groups through the Suchiate River’s murky waters, apparently trying to use the downdraft from its rotors to discourage them. Guatemala’s Noti7 channel reported that one man drowned and aired video of a man dragging a seemingly lifeless body from the river.
Once on the Mexican side the migrants were surrounded and escorted by dark-uniformed officers as sirens wailed. The standoff at the riverbank followed a more violent confrontation that occurred on the bridge over the river Sunday night, when migrants threw rocks and used sticks against Mexico police. One migrant died from a head wound during the clash, but the cause was unclear.
The group was much smaller than the first caravan. In the Mexican border town of Ciudad Hidalgo, they said they hoped to continue onward early Tuesday morning.
Far up the road in southern Mexico, the original caravan resumed its advance, still at least 1,000 miles or farther from their goal of reaching the United States as the Pentagon announced it would send 5,200 active-duty troops to “harden” the U.S.-Mexico border. There are already more than 2,000 National Guard troops providing assistance at the border.
The caravan currently has about 4,000 people, but has been dwindling. Earlier this year, only about 200 from a caravan of some 1,000 migrants reached the Tijuana-San Diego frontier.
The Pentagon announcement comes as President Donald Trump has been focusing on the caravan to stir up his base a week before midterm elections. On Monday he tweeted: “This is an invasion of our Country and our Military is waiting for you!”
Earlier in the day, members of the caravan strung out along the highway outside the city of Tapanatepec, some waiting for rides while others plodded toward their goal for the day: Niltepec, about 34 road miles (54 kilometers) to the northwest. Federal Police patrols drove slowly alongside encouraging them to stay on the shoulder.
Victor Argueta, 54, of Santa Barbara, Honduras, said he and his wife had spent two nights sleeping on the international bridge between Tecun Uman, Guatemala, and Ciudad Hidalgo, Mexico, before eventually crossing the river on a raft.
“We came with the goal of wanting to improve our future for ourselves and for our family. We did not come with the intention of finding death on the road,” Argueta said, reflecting on the news of the Honduran man’s death the previous night. “Maybe that boy came with good intentions, perhaps with a young person’s idea of supporting his family.”
Sandra Rodriguez, 31, had heard about the incident because her husband’s family lives in Tecun Uman. The couple from Guatemala City had joined the caravan in the border town and never considered someone could die on the bridge.
“I think they are risking much to cross to this side,” Rodriguez said.
While catching rides from passing trucks was a largely impromptu affair in the first week of the caravan, it has now become more organized. On Monday, more than 100 migrants lined up at a gas station parking lot to wait for rides.
Mayor Ramiro Nolasco of the town of Zanatepec said locals had organized a bus and several trucks to carry migrants, mainly women and children.
“We are helping our brothers from other countries with food, water, and transportation,” Nolasco said. “It is going to be very little, compared to what they need.”
At a checkpoint near the town, some migrants gathered to ask for help returning home to Honduras, the origin of the great majority of those in the caravan. Exhausted from many days on the road, and disheartened by the many miles yet to go and misbehavior by some fellow travelers, people have been dropping out from the caravan, which at its peak was estimated at more than 7,000.
The generosity shown by small towns and residents when the migrants first began trekking through southern Mexico has also lessened. At the last stop, few people came out to offer food, clothes and other items, said Hasiel Isamar Hernandez, a 28-year-old Honduran mother of three who has been with the caravan since it started in her hometown of San Pedro Sula.
“Of the friends that I have been with, all want to go back,” Hernandez said, adding that many had blistered feet. For her, the last straw was when her husband told her that her 3-year-old daughter back home had stopped eating because she missed her mother.
Another Honduran, Teodozo Melendez, 31, was also waiting for a bus back home after fighting a fever for two days. His body ached.
“I thought it would be easier,” Melendez said, lying on the ground.
Melendez’s goal had been to join relatives living in Houston. His experience with the caravan had taught him one thing, he said: “The next time, I’m going to need a ‘coyote,'” or smuggler.
The second group back at the Guatemalan frontier has been more unruly than the first that crossed. Guatemala’s Interior Ministry said Guatemalan police officers were injured when the migrant group broke through border barriers on Guatemala’s side of the bridge.
Mexico authorities said migrants attacked its agents with rocks, glass bottles and fireworks when they broke through a gate on the Mexican end but were pushed back, and some allegedly carried guns and firebombs.
On Monday, Mexican Interior Secretary Alfonso Navarrete Prida lamented what he called a second “violent attempt” to storm the border, accusing people of placing the elderly, pregnant women and children at the front, putting them at risk of being crushed.
“Fortunately, that did not happen,” he said.
The governmental National Human Rights Commission opened an investigation into the use of the helicopter at the river, saying it caused “strong winds and waves that put people at risk … especially girls, boys and women.”
The Interior Department said in a statement that two Hondurans ages 17 and 22 were arrested Monday when one of them tried to shoot at police in the town of Ignacio Zaragoza, near the Hidalgo border crossing. It said the Glock failed to fire, and no agents were injured.
Mexico said the previous day that temporary identity numbers had been issued to more than 300 migrants, which would allow them to stay and work in Mexico. Pregnant women, children and the elderly were among those who joined the program and were now being attended at shelters.
At least 1,895 have applied for refugee status in Mexico, and hundreds of others have accepted assisted returns to their country of origin.
El Salvador’s immigration agency said a group of Salvadorans including several dozen children and adolescents that crossed legally into Guatemala on Sunday numbered about 500. Several Central American nations have a border agreement allowing their citizens to move among the countries with just ID cards. Passports and visas are required for them to legally enter Mexico, however.
Salvadoran Vice Foreign Minister Liduvina Margarin warned against attempting the journey, saying, “This route is not safe, you will not be able to enter the United States like you think.”
The U.S. Embassy in Mexico City said in a statement that a diplomatic official had met with caravan participants in Mexico and explained that illegal entry is risky and can lead to prosecution. The official also told them that those without proper entry documents have a right to request asylum at a border crossing but it could entail up a monthlong wait, as happened with migrants in the caravan that went to Tijuana earlier this year.
Associated Press photojournalist Santiago Billy reported this story from Tecun Uman, Guatemala, and AP writer Christopher Sherman reported from Zanatepec, Mexico. AP writers Julie Watson in Tapanatepec, Mexico, and Sonia Perez D. in Guatemala City contributed to this report.
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