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Weary migrant caravan rests in south Mexico, asks for buses

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Weary migrant caravan rests in south Mexico, asks for buses

Image: Migrant caravan
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Ueslei Marcelino
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JUCHITAN, Mexico — Thousands of Central American migrants in a caravan that has already advanced 250 miles into Mexico hope they won't have to walk anymore, at least for a while.

Red Cross personnel on Wednesday bandaged the swollen feet of Honduran farmer Omar Lopez in the southern city of Juchitan, where the caravan was paused for the day. He had been pounding the hot asphalt of highways every day for the last two weeks after spending nights on concrete sidewalks with just a thin sheet of plastic for cover, and that had taken its toll.

"We are waiting to see if they are going to help us out with buses, to continue the trip," said Lopez, 27.

Organizers say the buses, if they do materialize, would take the estimated 4,000 migrants to Mexico City for meetings with legislators, not to the still-distant U.S. border, though some would probably continue to the border after reaching the capital.

That might not play well with U.S. officials: White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders on Wednesday specifically praised Mexico for stopping the migrants from getting rides.

"Mexico has stepped up in an unprecedented way," Sanders told Fox News. "They have helped stop a lot of the transportation means of these individuals in these caravans, forcing them walking. They have helped us in new ways to slow this down, to break this up and keep it from moving as aggressively toward the United States."

The Mexican government, has, in fact, taken a fairly contradictory stance on helping or hindering the first caravan, reflecting the country's balancing act: Officials don't want to irk Trump, but Mexicans themselves have long suffered mistreatment as migrants.

For the first week of the caravan, Mexican federal police sometimes enforced obscure safety rules, forcing migrants off paid mini-buses, citing insurance regulations. They also stopped some overloaded pickup trucks carrying migrants and forced them to get off. But in recent days, officials from Mexico's immigrant-protection agency have organized rides for straggling women and children on the caravan as a humanitarian effort.

And police have routinely stood by as migrants piled aboard freight trucks.

But the first caravan — which planned to take a day of rest Wednesday in Juchitan, about 900 miles from the nearest U.S. border crossing — is only the start.

A second, smaller group of 1,000 or so migrants who forced their way into Mexico on Monday was trailing some 250 miles back. They spent Tuesday night in the city of Tapachula.

Behind them, a third group of migrants from El Salvador had already made it to Guatemala, and on Wednesday a fourth group of about 700 Salvadorans set out from the capital, San Salvador, with plans to walk to the U.S. border, 1,500 miles away.

Jose Santos, 27, brought his baby son with him on the quixotic quest. "I didn't want to go, but I'm unemployed and I have to get money to buy food for my son," Santos said. "There is no work here, and the violence never stops."

The first caravan started out in Honduras more than two weeks ago; since then, the caravan migrants have spent their nights camping out in the main squares of small cities in the southern states of Chiapas and now Oaxaca. But a deadly earthquake last year destroyed Juchitan's central market, prompting it to be provisionally moved to the central plaza — meaning there was no room for them there.

Instead they spent the night on a municipal-owned lot on the outskirts of town where a high ceiling sheltered a cement floor. Outside the structure, many more bedded down on blankets or cardboard sheets in the grass, with some lashing tarps to the foliage for rudimentary shelter.

The two groups combined represent just a few days' worth of the average flow of migrants to the United States in recent years. Similar caravans have occurred regularly over the years, passing largely unnoticed, but the new ones have become a hot-button electoral issue for U.S. President Donald Trump.

With just a week to U.S. midterm elections, the Pentagon has announced it will deploy 5,200 troops to the Southwest border, and Trump has continued to tweet and speak about the migrants.

On Wednesday, he tweeted, "We will NOT let these Caravans, which are also made up of some very bad thugs and gang members, into the U.S. Our Border is sacred, must come in legally. TURN AROUND!"

"According to what they say, we are not going to be very welcome at the border," Honduran migrant Levin Guillen said when asked about Trump. "But we are going to try."

Guillen, a 23-year-old farmer from Corinto, Honduras, said he had been getting threats back home from the same people who killed his father 18 years ago. "We just want to a way to get to our final goal, which is the border," he said.

Worn down from long miles of walking and frustrated by the slow progress, many migrants have been dropping out and returning home or applying for protected status in Mexico. The initial group is already significantly diminished from its estimated peak at over 7,000-strong. A caravan in the spring ultimately fizzled to just about 200 people who reached the U.S. border at San Diego.

Deputy foreign ministers from El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Mexico met Tuesday and agreed to coordinate "special attention" for the caravans, guaranteeing human rights, humanitarian assistance and "a safe, orderly and regular migration" in accordance with each country's laws.

Mexico's Interior Department said two Hondurans who requested entry were identified as having arrest warrants back home, one drug-related and the other for suspected homicide. They were deported. The department said in a statement that the men were part of "the migrant caravan," but did not say which group or specify when they were detained at checkpoints in the southern state of Chiapas.

Echoing their countrymen in the initial caravan, Hondurans in the second group talked of fleeing poverty and gang violence in one of the world's deadliest countries by homicide rate. They said asylum in the United States is their primary goal, but some expressed openness to applying for protected status in Mexico if that doesn't work out.

"Continue on to the United States, that is the first objective," said Carlos Enrique Carcamo, a 50-year-old boat mechanic. "But if that's not possible, well, permission here in Mexico to work or stay here."