CIUDAD HIDALGO, Mexico (AP) — About 2,000 Central American migrants who circumvented Mexican police at a border bridge and swam, forded and floated across the river from Guatemala decided on Saturday to re-form their mass caravan and continue their trek northward toward the United States.
Gathered at a park in the border city of Ciudad Hidalgo, the migrants voted by a show of hands and then marched to the bridge to urge those still there to cross the river and join them.
“Let’s all walk together!” and “Yes we can!” they cried, defying warnings to turn back this week from U.S. President Donald Trump, who has sought to make the caravan and border security in general into a campaign issue a little over two weeks before midterm elections.
The group’s decision capped a day in which Mexican authorities again refused mass entry to migrants on the bridge, instead accepting small groups for asylum processing and giving out 45-day visitor permits to some of them.
Mexico had sought to maintain order after a chaotic Friday in which thousands rushed across the bridge only to be halted by a phalanx of officers in riot gear. Authorities began handing out numbers for people to be processed in a strategy seen before at U.S. border posts when dealing with large numbers of migrants.
But despite a continued heavy police deployment on the bridge, a steady stream of migrants made it to Mexican soil with relative ease by crossing the Suchiate River that demarcates the notoriously porous border.
They swam, waded with the aid of ropes or paid locals who charge the equivalent of $1.25 to ferry people and goods across the muddy waters, and were not detained on reaching the Mexican bank.
“We don’t yet know if we will make it to the (U.S.) border, but we are going to keep going as far as we can,” said Rodrigo Abeja, one of the migrants’ leaders, adding that they would strike out Sunday morning for the city of Tapachula.
Where easily 3,000 people were on the bridge the previous day, the crowd had thinned out considerably by Saturday. In addition to those who crossed the river, immigration agents processed migrants in small groups and then bused them to an open-air, metal-roof fairground in Tapachula, where the Red Cross set up small blue tents on the concrete floor.
But the pace was slow, frustrating those who remained on the bridge in hot and cramped conditions.
“Please let us in, we want to work!” they entreated agents at the main gate. Behind it, workers erected tall steel riot barriers to channel people in an orderly fashion.
Each time a small side gate opened to allow people to pass, there was a crush of bodies as migrants desperately pushed forward.
Scarleth Cruz hoisted a crying, sweat-soaked baby girl above the crowd, crying out: “This girl is suffocating.”
Cruz, 20, said she was going to ask for political asylum because of threats and repression she faced back in Honduras from President Juan Orlando Hernandez’s governing party.
“Why would I want to go to the United States if I’m going to be persecuted” there as well, she said.
Mexico’s Interior Department said in a statement that it had received 640 refugee requests by Hondurans at the border crossing. It released photos of migrants getting off buses at a shelter and receiving food and medical attention.
At least half a dozen migrants fainted.
Some tore open a fence on the Guatemala side of the bridge and threw two young children, perhaps age 6 or 7, and their mother into the muddy waters about 40 feet below. They were rafted to safety in on the Mexican bank.
Mexican workers handed food bottled water to the migrants on the bridge. Through the bars, a doctor gave medical attention to a woman who feared her young son was running a fever.
Sustenance also came from Guatemalan locals — for Carlos Martinez, a 24-year-old from Santa Barbara, Honduras, the plate of chicken with rice was the first bite to eat he’d had all day.
“It is a blessing that they have given us food,” Martinez said. “It gives me courage to keep waiting, as long as I can.”
Migrants cited widespread poverty and gang violence in Honduras, one of the world’s deadliest nations by homicide rate, as their reasons for joining the caravan.
“One cannot live back there,” said Fidelina Vasquez, a grandmother traveling with her daughter and 2-year-old grandson, standing next to the main border gate.
Hector Aguilar, a 49-year-old sales manager who worked as a taxi driver in Honduras’ Yoro province to feed his four children, said he had to pay the two main gangs there protection money in order to work.
“On Thursdays I paid the 18th Street gang, and on Saturdays the MS-13,” Aguilar said. “Three hundred lempiras per day” — about $12.50, a significant amount in low-wage Honduras.
The caravan elicited a series of angry tweets and warnings from Trump early in the week, but Mexico’s no-nonsense handling of the migrants at it southern border seems to have satisfied him more recently.
“So as of this moment, I thank Mexico,” Trump said Friday at an event in Scottsdale, Arizona. “I hope they continue. But as of this moment, I thank Mexico. If that doesn’t work out, we’re calling up the military — not the Guard.”
“They’re not coming into this country,” Trump added.
“The Mexican Government is fully engaged in finding a solution that encourages safe, secure, and orderly migration,” State Department Spokeswoman Heather Nauert said Saturday, “and both the United States and Mexico continue to work with Central American governments to address the economic, security, and governance drivers of illegal immigration.”
Presidents Hernandez of Honduras and Jimmy Morales of Guatemala held an emergency meeting at a Guatemalan air base.
The leaders said an estimated 5,400 migrants had entered Guatemala since the caravan was announced a week ago, and about 2,000 Hondurans have returned voluntarily.
Morales said a Honduran migrant died in the town of Villa Nueva, about 20 miles (30 kilometers) from Guatemala City, when he fell from a truck that was transporting migrants.
Thousands of migrants slept — or tried to sleep — outdoors overnight underneath tarps and what blankets were available.
Jose Yanez, a 25-year-old farmer, woke up at 5 a.m. with a backache after having nothing to cover himself from the nighttime chill. But he was determined to press onward, saying the $6 a day he made back home was not enough to live on.
“From here,” Yanez said, “there’s no going back.”
Mark Stevenson reported from Ciudad Hidalgo, and Sonia Perez D. reported from Tecun Uman, Guatemala. Associated Press writers Sonny Figueroa in Guatemala City and Peter Orsi in Mexico City contributed to this report.