MEXICO CITY — Wielding truncheons and firing tear gas, Guatemalan security forces on Sunday stepped up their efforts to stop a caravan of thousands of Central American migrants who have surged in from Honduras in recent days in hopes of reaching the United States.
Soldiers and police officers blockaded a road between the Honduran border and the city of Chiquimula in southeastern Guatemala to stop the caravan, which by some estimates included as many as 7,000 people. Many are fleeing poverty and violence made worse by the pandemic and two major hurricanes that pummeled the region late last year.
Shortly after dawn on Sunday, migrants tried to force their way through the phalanx but were beaten back by security forces with truncheons, shields and clouds of tear gas, according to the local news media and a video circulated by the Guatemalan government.
“Fortunately, our security forces managed to contain this pitched battle,” said Guillermo Díaz, director general of the Guatemalan Migration Institute. “We managed to calm everything in a very complicated situation.” He added, “We are talking about national security here.”
In recent years, the Trump administration has put considerable pressure on the governments of Central America and Mexico to stop these large-scale mobilizations of migrants before they reach the southwest border of the United States.
This weekend’s caravan was the first large one to challenge the region’s governments since last January, when thousands of migrants, most of them Honduran, overran Guatemalan border authorities and surged across Guatemala before trying to break through border defenses on Mexico’s southern border. But over the course of several days, the Mexican government dismantled the caravan, which at one point numbered about 4,000 people, using persuasion and force.
For years, such caravans were a time-honored tradition in Mexico, albeit involving far fewer people, who would head north together as a way to protect against criminals who stalk the migrant trail and to draw attention to their plight.
But in the spring of 2018, a migrant caravan that formed near the southern border of Mexico and came to include upward of 1,200 people at its peak — a record at that time — got President Trump’s attention and became a volatile flash point in the immigration debate.
Another far larger caravan that left Honduras in October 2018 also provoked Mr. Trump, who used it to rally his base and energize Republican voters before that year’s midterm congressional elections. He described the caravan as an invading horde, sent troops to the border with Mexico and considered taking executive action to close that border to migrants, including those seeking asylum.
In 2019, Mr. Trump put further pressure on Mexico, as well as Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, to crack down on illegal northbound migration, freezing American aid and threatening tariffs. Pressure on Mexico led to the deployment of thousands of Mexican security forces to help detain undocumented migrants as they traveled north.
The Trump administration also signed deals with the three Central American nations allowing the United States to send asylum seekers to those countries to apply for sanctuary there.
But with Mr. Trump leaving office on Wednesday, these and other restrictive border policies he put in place did not dissuade the latest caravan from forming last week in the northern Honduran city of San Pedro Sula.
Guatemalan migration officials estimated on Sunday that about 6,000 migrants were corralled between Chiquimula and the border with Honduras, most of them Honduran. Hundreds more reportedly eluded the Guatemalan security checkpoints, with some reaching Guatemala City over the weekend, the local news media reported.
The migrants are traveling by a combination of walking, hitchhiking and bus.
“They have no heart,” one Honduran migrant, Dixón Vázquez, 29, told the Agence France-Presse news service, speaking about the Guatemalan authorities. “We are risking our lives. There is no work in Honduras, especially after the two cyclones and the pandemic. We are going to hold out until they let us continue.”
He added, “Our goal is to reach the United States.”
The Mexican authorities have deployed additional troops and immigration officers along the country’s southern border in anticipation of the caravan’s arrival.
While poverty, violence and government corruption appear to be the main drivers of the latest caravan, the change in American leadership this week may also be a factor. Migrants’ advocates and scholars have warned that President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s victory over Mr. Trump could inspire a surge of migrants hopeful that his administration will significantly relax migration policy, making it easier for them to get into the country.
During the presidential campaign, Mr. Biden said he would move quickly to undo the tougher restrictions on asylum enacted by the Trump administration, including a policy that has forced many asylum seekers to wait in Mexico pending the outcome of their cases.
On his first day in office, Mr. Biden plans to ask Congress for a broad overhaul of immigration laws, changes that would include a pathway to citizenship for 11 million immigrants now in the United States illegally, plus aid for damaged Central American economies and plans to help people fleeing violence.
Last month, Mr. Biden, in an effort to avert a rush of migrants to the border, cautioned that changes to immigration policy could not be put in place immediately and that his administration would need “probably the next six months” to develop a more “humane policy” for processing migrants.
Kirk Semple reported from Mexico City, and Nic Wirtz from Antigua, Guatemala. Austin Ramzy contributed reporting.