Migrant caravan must walk as Mexico denies request for buses

JUCHITAN, Mexico — Tired Central American migrants rested in this southern Mexico town while their representatives tried to negotiate bus transportation hundreds of miles ahead, but then came the bad news: They’d be walking again before dawn Thursday.

They planned to take advantage of cool overnight and morning temperatures by hitting the road at 3 a.m. in Juchitan for a trek to Santa Maria Jalapa del Marques, about 35 miles (57 kilometers) to the west.

The migrants have not said what route they intend to take northward or where on the U.S. border they planned to reach, and Juchitan, still about 900 miles from U.S. soil, was something of a crossroads.

Choosing Jalapa del Marques as the next stop appeared to indicate they are opting to travel via Oaxaca state’s eponymous capital instead of turning north toward the Gulf coast state of Veracruz, which is a common transit route toward McAllen, Texas.

On Wednesday evening it became clear that Mexican authorities were not acceding to the caravan’s demand that dozens of buses be provided to whisk the 4,000 or so people to Mexico City.

“The attempt to travel by bus failed,” caravan coordinator Walter Cuello acknowledged.

Taking a day off from days of walking in the heat, migrants wandered around Juchitan looking for something to eat as classic songs by Mexican singer Vicente Fernandez, known as “the king of ranchera music,” played in the background. Loudspeaker announcements discussed bathroom use and a prohibition on charging money to power their cellphones.

Red Cross personnel bandaged the swollen feet of Honduran farmer Omar Lopez, who has been pounding the hot asphalt of highways every day for the last two weeks and spending nights on concrete sidewalks with just a thin sheet of plastic for cover. Lopez said playing soccer back home had given him stamina but the “exaggerated” walk has taken its toll.

“The sacrifice is worth the effort,” Lopez said. “I promised to buy my son a real motorcycle and I’m going to make good. I promised him many other things … not only things, I also want to give them education. Everything good costs money.”

White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders 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 caravan, reflecting the country’s balancing act: Officials don’t want to irk President Donald 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 as a humanitarian effort. And police have routinely stood by as migrants piled aboard freight trucks.

A second, smaller group of 1,000 or so migrants is more than 200 miles behind the first caravan. A third band of about 500 from El Salvador made it to Guatemala, and a fourth group of about 700 set out from the Salvadoran capital Wednesday.

Altogether, the four caravans 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 and passed largely unnoticed, but Trump has focused on the latest marchers seeking to make border security a hot-button issue in next week’s midterm elections.

The Pentagon has announced it is sending 5,200 troops to the Southwest border, with their role largely limited to such activities as providing helicopter support, installing concrete barriers and maintaining vehicles. Trump said Wednesday that number could go as high as 15,000.

Worn down by days of long walks, many migrants have dropped out and returned home or applied for protected status in Mexico.

The initial caravan has shrunk significantly from its estimated peak of more than 7,000 migrants. A caravan last the spring ultimately fizzled to just about 200 people who reached the U.S. border at San Diego.

Mexican Interior Secretary Alfonso Navarrete Prida said about 2,300 migrants have applied to stay in Mexico under a government plan, and hundreds more have accepted assisted repatriation.

Also Wednesday, a Guatemalan woman gave birth to the first known caravan baby at a hospital in Juchitan. Mexico’s governmental National Human Rights Commission said it had arranged for medical attention for the woman, who was 28 weeks pregnant, and the girl was healthy.

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