By Frank Jack Daniel and Gustavo Palencia
GUATEMALA CITY/TEGUCIGALPA (Reuters) – Guatemala’s new president on Wednesday faced an early test of his ability to manage migration as a caravan of hundreds of people left Honduras for the United States, and said Mexico would halt its progress.
President Alejandro Giammattei inherited a contentious deal that his predecessor’s government struck with Washington designed to make migrants from Honduras and El Salvador seek asylum in Guatemala rather than the United States.
Giammattei met with Mexican Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard early on Wednesday, and later told reporters that Mexico was determined to halt the caravan‘s advance.
“The Mexican government told us that they won’t let it pass,” said Giammattei, “that they will do everything in their powers to stop it from passing.”
Mexico‘s foreign ministry did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Giammattei’s remarks.
Earlier, Ebrard said on Twitter that Mexico and Guatemala will hold bilateral talks on migration once the new Guatemalan government has become familiar with “the situation.”
In accordance with a freedom of movement agreement between northern Central America countries, Giammattei said he would allow the caravan to enter Guatemala provided its members had the required paperwork.
Still, tensions flared when a group of about 300 migrants approached the Guatemala border at Corinto from Honduras.
According to Honduran security ministry spokesman Jair Meza, Honduran police fired tear gas when a group of people tried to cross without passing through migration controls.
Some reached the Guatemalan side, where 15 people were detained by Guatemalan authorities and sent back, Meza said.
Giammattei, a conservative who has already discussed migration with top U.S. officials, is scheduled to speak by phone with his U.S. counterpart Donald Trump on Wednesday.
Giammattei has yet to detail how he will treat the U.S. migration agreement, instead focusing on economic development.
“Physical walls aren’t going to stop migration… the only things that stop migration are walls of prosperity,” Giammattei told Mexican broadcaster Televisa.
Before dawn, the caravan of several hundred people set off from San Pedro Sula in northern Honduras, about 25 miles (40 km) from the Guatemala border.
“Here there’s no work, there’s nothing. That’s why we are fleeing to the United States,” a young man travelling with his wife and two children told Honduran television.
San Pedro Sula, one of Central America’s most violent cities, also was the departure point for a large caravan in 2018 that angered Trump, prompting him to press governments in the region to do more to contain migration.
Guatemala’s former President Jimmy Morales last July agreed with the U.S. government to implement measures aimed at reducing U.S. asylum claims from migrants fleeing Honduras and El Salvador, averting Trump’s threat of economic sanctions.
Giammattei said a top priority would be reviewing the text of migration agreements made with the United States.
(Reporting by Frank Jack Daniel in Guatemala City, Daina Beth Solomon in Mexico City and Gustavo Palencia in Tegucigalpa; Editing by Bill Berkrot)