MEXICO CITY (CN) — A sense of weary yet joyful relief prevailed among those in the migrant caravan as they made their way into the outskirts of Mexico City on Sunday. They had arrived on the Day of the Virgin of Guadalupe, just in time to say a prayer at one of the world’s most important sites for Catholic pilgrims, the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe, north of the city center.
Spirits high despite their destination still being at the end of another eight hours or more of trekking through the congested metropolis, the migrants then saw the riot police. The city had set up a shelter for them near Santa Marta Acatitla, a neighborhood at the city’s eastern edge, but the migrants did not want to stay there. Despite the presence of children and pregnant women in the group, violence ensued.
“The police were the ones who provoked it, not us. We were calm,” said Israel Escalante, who left his native Honduras to escape violence and extortion. “Ever since we left Tapachula, we’ve gone peacefully, not causing any problems. On the contrary, immigration agents, state police, and the National Guard have provoked violence against us several times.”
Escalante, 31, and the rest of the nearly 400 migrants in the caravan — most of them from Central America, and a small number from Haiti — left the border town of Tapachula, Chiapas, on Oct. 23. Their 50-day trek from the southern border was riddled with such incidents.
After Sunday evening’s struggle, police buses transported the migrants to a temporary shelter for pilgrims a few blocks from the basilica. Medical personnel staffed mobile clinics Monday to treat injured migrants.
Local papers published photos of injured police officers and pointed fingers at the migrants for initiating the conflict. But bandaged limbs abounded at the temporary shelter. And many told stories of tear gas shot into the crowd by officers positioned on pedestrian bridges overhead.
Guillermina Huella, 21, had her wrist bandaged after injuring it the evening before. She cited extortion as the reason she left Honduras with her husband and 2-year-old daughter Mileva. “If you don’t pay what they demand, they kill you,” she said.
Like others in the caravan, she did not expect to experience the levels of violence she has seen while in Mexico. She was forced to pass Mileva to a journalist on the other side of a highway barrier to get her to safety Sunday evening. They were separated for 30 minutes before being reunited, but not before she was injured in the melee that ensued.
“If the journalist hadn’t taken her away, they would have killed her,” said Huella.
Junior Nuñez, 24, left Honduras with his wife Katerín Gutiérrez and their young daughter after gang members threatened to kill him for not working for their organization. Gutiérrez, 25, lost her beauty salon business after she refused to pay the extortion demanded of her, something so common in Honduras that she first called it a “tax.” When she failed to pay, criminals stole all of her equipment.
Neither expected to see such violence from Mexican authorities on their way north. “You can’t resolve things by beating people,” said Nuñez. “Violence doesn’t solve anything.”
Sunday’s row with Mexico City police was not the first time the caravan had clashed with authorities. Nuñez and several other migrants confirmed reports of Mexican immigration agents traveling ahead of the group to tell shop owners to close down while the caravan passed by. Immigration authorities reportedly ran over two migrants in the scuffle.
“The National Guard and immigration agents told store owners that we’re thieves, that we only come to steal from them, but we’ve been traveling peacefully,” Nuñez said.
A spokesperson for Mexico’s National Migration Institute told Courthouse News “that dynamic does not exist” among its agents, contrasting with what migrants described as their reality on the road.
Many of the migrants expected something wholly different from the current government in Mexico. President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, whose increased militarization of the country is a red flag for his critics, has portrayed himself as a man of the people. But migrants see nothing resembling the ostensibly pacific “hugs not bullets” stance he has taken toward drug traffickers.
Escalante, who traversed Mexico in hopes of making it into the United States in 2014, said that he saw nothing then like what he has seen from authorities his second time around.
“We’ve suffered so many things that have happened to us,” he said. “To be honest, I feel sad and let down by the government and the police. Under Peña Nieto, we never had any problems like this. President López Obrador talks a lot of politics, but he doesn’t put any of it into practice. Politicians should take care of people, not mistreat them like this.”
The road and the dangers found on it may have proven to be too much for Escalante. He said he would accept legal status in Mexico and stay here, if the government would grant it. But he spent four months waiting to hear from Mexico’s cash-strapped refugee commission before finally deciding to start walking north. Several others spoke of similar fruitless, month-long waits.
Still, others are determined to achieve their goal of reaching the United States. Huella responded with a resounding “No!” when asked if she was scared to continue the journey after what happened to her and her daughter Sunday evening. And Nuñez is determined to create a better life for his wife and daughter.
“We hope to make it to the United States to work and provide for our families,” he said. “The only thing we ask for is justice and peace, because we don’t want any kind of conflict. We just want [authorities] to figure something out for us, that they help us, and that they support us.”
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