TECUN UMAN, Guatemala — Several hundred migrants from Honduras had gathered in the center of this bustling border town Thursday with more streaming in by the hour in what could be the beginning of another mass exodus of people headed to the U.S. through Mexico.
Some of the migrants in the town’s main plaza said Thursday that they were waiting for a wave of new migrants to arrive that could number between 1,500 and 4,000 people, similar to the huge caravan of migrants that passed through this town just five days earlier.
With the bridge connecting Tecun Uman in Guatemala with Ciudad Hidalgo in Mexico still closed, migrants said they planned to cross the Suchiate River that divides the two countries en masse — either on rafts or by wading across areas where the brown churning water is only waist deep.
Under pressure from the United States, Mexico shut the bridge in an effort to halt another wave of migrants, mostly Hondurans, from crossing the border into Mexico.
The bridge has remained closed to both vehicle and pedestrian traffic for more than two weeks, since thousands of migrants amassed on the bridge. On Saturday, they stormed through its gates into Mexico, where they were met with tear gas from Mexican authorities.
Crossing the river now is done by taking the dozens of rafts that charge 20 quetzales per person, about $2.50, to ferry people across.
The Mexican government has deployed dozens of additional immigration officers and federal police on the river’s banks, in anticipation of another wave of migrants.
On Thursday, as federal police armed with assault rifles stood watch, immigration officers asked to see people’s border-crossing documents as they climbed from rafts onto the riverbanks on the Mexican side.
Immigration officers said anyone who arrived without valid documents to enter Mexico would be told to cross back into Guatemala.
In the central plaza in Tecun Uman, meanwhile, what is shaping into a major humanitarian crisis spanning Central America, Mexico and the United States continued to unfold.
The plaza was lined with about 300 migrants from Honduras, sitting on benches, lying on the pavement, and gathered under an open-air stage, in whatever shade they could find to protect them from the blazing sun. All were waiting to decide what’s next.
Several migrants said they were determined to get to the United States, even if it meant dying trying to get there. They described deteriorating conditions in Honduras under President Juan Orlando Hernandez, who was re-elected in November in balloting many Hondurans believe was marred by fraud, but supported by the United States.
“We are in a horrible crisis in our country,” said Gabriela Patricia Aguilar Lainez, 37, as she stood in the plaza in the sweltering heat, while her 3-year-old daughter cried. “We are in a political crisis, an economic crisis, and a crime crisis.”
Aguilar Lainez said she was traveling with her four children, ranging in age from 3 to 18, and her 16-year-old sister. It had taken them six days to travel from Nacaome, her hometown in Honduras, to the Guatemalan border with Mexico, by walking and hitching rides.
A week earlier, she said, hit men had killed a 14-year-old boy from her neighborhood, cementing her decision to flee to the U.S., where a sister lives in Virginia.
There was no evidence that this new group of migrants from Honduras was being organized or funded by any particular group or organization, as some U.S. politicians including President Donald Trump have alleged.
To eat, Aguilar Lainez said she had ventured from the plaza into the surrounding streets begging for money to buy food for herself and her family.
At a nearby church, volunteers arrived and were handing out tamales wrapped in banana leaves to migrants.
In the same plaza, migrants sprawled shoulder to shoulder on the cement floor, sleeping, smoking cigarettes given to them by passersby, or waiting for their cellphones to charge.
Some of the young men called out, asking for money from anyone who walked past.
“We are hungry. Can you please lend a hand?” they said.
The migrants said they were not part of any organized caravan, but rather had banded together on the journey, creating fast friendships to travel together because they said there is safety in numbers.
Kevin Escobar, 26, of Esperanza Intinduca, Honduras, wearing a black-and-white trucker’s hat with the words, “I love you Madelin” printed on the front in Spanish, said he was headed for the United States, but where he did not know.
“Our country is failed,” Escobar said, his eyes bloodshot from six days walking and hitching rides to reach the Guatemala-Mexico border.
From here, it’s another 1,000 to 2,500 miles to the U.S. border, depending on the destination and route.
Escobar said he had left his wife and four children in Honduras, in hopes of reaching the U.S. and finding a job to support them.
When asked if he had heard that Trump had deployed more troops to the border to stop caravans of migrants from entering the U.S. illegally, Escobar said it didn’t matter, he would keep going.
“I have to find a way to help my family and that means going to another country,” he said.
Later in the afternoon, a raft already overloaded with Guatemalans crossing over to Mexico teetered precariously as the pilot prepared to shove off from the banks. He clutched a long pole to maneuver across the water.
Before the pilot departed, a young man arrived in a wheelchair made of wood that he propelled using hand-pedals.
Two men hoisted the young man out of the wheelchair, revealing withered, spaghetti-thin legs, and plopped him onto the wooden planks of the raft, held afloat by two giant inner tubes.
The passengers squeezed together even tighter to make room, as two men on shore positioned the wheelchair onto the raft, making an already dangerous situation even more precarious.
The raft floated across the river, pushed along by the pilot with the pole and a man wading ahead and pulling the raft with a rope.
When asked whether he was one of the “criminals” or “bad people” Trump has claimed are mixed in with the migrants headed for the U.S, creating what he has called a national emergency, the man lowered his head. No, he said, he was just trying to find work, despite his broken body.
On the opposite bank, Mexican immigration authorities checked the documents of the passengers as they disembarked, sending each one along until they reached the man with the wheelchair.
The man told the immigration officers his name was Pedro Castillo, and he was 23 years old.
When they asked where he was from, the man answered Honduras.
His goal: to hand-pedal his way to the United States.
Immigration officers escorted the man to a shaded area under a tree to be processed and offered him water.
“Regular or cold,” one of the immigration officers asked.