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The Mayan teacher locked up for defending a sacred river

November 19, 2021

Knowing her husband Bernardo Caal Xol is locked up in filthy, overcrowded conditions alongside men convicted of the most violent of crimes, Isabel Matzir fears constantly for his life.

“Many people have been found murdered in Guatemala’s prisons,” Matzir, a 40-year-old Kaqchikel Mayan teacher, tells Amnesty International over the phone. “We know full well they can simulate a riot, they can disguise any situation in order to harm him.”

Imprisoned since January 2018 in retaliation for opposing a harmful hydroelectric project that local communities never consented to, Caal is paying the price for standing up to powerful corporations and authorities who routinely misuse Guatemala’s justice system to criminalize human rights defenders.

Concerns over his safety are not unfounded. The Business and Human Rights Resource Centre has counted 11 murders of activists who opposed hydroelectric projects in Guatemala, while Global Witness named it the world’s seventh deadliest country for land and environmental defenders in 2020.

Yet Caal refuses to be silenced. Armed only with a pen and paper, he continues to resist from his jail cell, calling out everyone he considers complicit in violating his people’s rights, from Guatemala’s head of state to the president of the football team Real Madrid.

A prisoner of conscience

A respected teacher and community leader, 49-year-old Caal is the oldest of six siblings from Santa María Cahabón, a Q’eqchi’ Mayan territory in the northern region of Alta Verapaz.

In 2015, locals nominated Caal to represent them in a dispute with OXEC, a hydroelectric project that has restricted their access to the sacred Cahabón and Ox-eek’ rivers where Q’eqchi’ people have bathed and fished for generations. Access to water is a common concern among the lush, green hills and pastures of Alta Verapaz, where a 2018 census found that only 28% of the population had running water in their homes, while 42% relied on rainwater, rivers, lakes and springs.

Caal has filed several legal challenges against OXEC – which belongs to Energy Resources Capital Corp, a company registered in Panama, and was built by the Israeli contractor Solel Boneh – for allegedly destroying 15 hectares of forest and three sacred hills, and violating an international law enshrining indigenous peoples’ rights to free, prior and informed consent over projects in their territories.

Guatemala’s highest courts found that the affected communities had not been properly consulted, but ultimately allowed the project to continue. Determined to make their voices heard, 195 local communities held their own symbolic consultation in 2017, with 26,537 people rejecting OXEC and just 12 voting in favor.

Caal began to receive threats because of his activism and UN experts would later denounce the private sector for smearing him as a violent criminal in newspapers, television and social media.

In January 2018, police arrested Caal for supposedly detaining and robbing four employees of the OXEC subcontractor Netzone during a 2015 protest. In November 2018 a court sentenced him to seven years and four months in prison for unlawful detention and aggravated robbery.

Despite Amnesty International finding irregularities, negligence, and a lack of evidence in the case against Caal and naming him a prisoner of conscience, Guatemala’s Supreme Court rejected Caal’s appeal against his conviction in September 2021. OXEC has denied responsibility for his imprisonment.

Caal often describes his situation as “torture by prison”. Matzir says his health has deteriorated but the prison authorities are not giving him adequate medical attention. Maintaining social distancing has proven impossible during the pandemic and at times he has not been allowed to exercise in the courtyard or even see the sun for months on end. UN experts have urged Guatemala’s government to protect his health and safety throughout his incarceration.

Visits have been heavily restricted during the pandemic, with Matzir only allowed in sporadically. Caal’s sister María Josefina has only been able to leave food for him with guards at the entrance, while his elderly mother and two daughters, aged 12 and 14, have not been able to see him. Nor can he make phone calls from prison.

Matzir describes her husband as an honest, hardworking man who enjoys reading. He is an exemplary father, she says, who enjoyed teaching his daughters to play guitar and telling them bedtime stories. “The girls miss their dad,” she adds. “It’s been the most difficult experience they’ve had to live through.”

Even before the pandemic, it was hard for the family to make the nine-hour journey to the prison in the city of Cobán. The costs of buses, taxis, meals and accommodation – plus the medicine, hygiene and cleaning products they would bring Caal – made it an expensive three-day roundtrip.

Under increasing financial pressure, Matzir has had to abandon the classes she was taking before he was imprisoned and adapt to life as the family’s sole breadwinner. “I had to reorganize everything financially because we have a lot of debts. The children’s tuition fees, for example, have accumulated, and we’ve postponed some surgeries that I’ve needed,” she says. “If we used to sleep eight hours, now we sleep four, five at most… this’ll have its consequences later, but for now you give every ounce of energy you have each day. There’s no other option.”

Another threat to the sacred river

Caal spends much of his time behind bars writing letters. Among others, he often denounces Florentino Pérez, the Spanish billionaire best known as Real Madrid’s club president.

Besides running the world’s biggest football club, Pérez also heads the Spanish construction giant ACS, whose subsidiary Cobra was contracted to build Renace, Guatemala’s biggest hydroelectric project, along a stretch of the Cahabón river home to some 30,000 people. In a 2014 visit to supervise construction, Pérez gifted Guatemala’s then-president Otto Pérez Molina a Real Madrid shirt and declared Renace “a project with exemplary social responsibility, with respect for others, the environment and the communities.”

Yet Caal says it has inflicted terrible harm. In one handwritten letter, he accuses Pérez of having “trampled on the rights of indigenous peoples” by piping and diverting the river without consulting the affected communities, thus “leaving thousands of Q’eqchi’ Mayan brothers and sisters without access to water”. In another, he implores Real Madrid’s fans to tell their club president to “leave the sacred Cahabón river in peace”.

The project has sparked tensions at local and international level. Shortly after a protest against Renace outside the Spanish embassy in 2017, Spain’s Chamber of Commerce urged the Guatemalan authorities to immediately disperse any gatherings, roadblocks or demonstrations that affect freedom of movement, business or private property, and “immediately initiate action, investigations and criminal prosecutions” against those responsible.

In 2019, Guatemala’s Supreme Court ordered the Ministry of Energy and Mines to conduct a free and informed consultation of the affected communities, but – as with OXEC – did not suspend the project, despite acknowledging the violation of their right to prior consent. Renace has denied any wrongdoing, but a Spanish government body found that it had caused “significant changes to some stretches of the Cahabón river… with potential negative effects on local communities.”

In April 2021, ACS announced it was selling the majority of its industrial division for almost €5 billion to the French corporation Vinci, but would hold a 49% stake in a new company joint owned by ACS and Vinci. ACS and Cobra did not respond to Amnesty International’s requests for comment. 

“Florentino [Pérez] and these companies, they don’t take away the river because they really need the water to survive, do they? For them it’s just profits and accumulation,” Matzir says. “However, here in the communities it translates into the life or death of people, animals, plants, all those who live in and around the river. It’s really infuriating that there are human beings who… destroy everything in their path in order to generate profits, including people’s lives.”

Alta Verapaz is one of Guatemala’s poorest regions, accounting for 75% of nationwide child deaths from malnutrition in 2021. However, Matzir says, the authorities “never link this to access to water, to access to fish, to crabs, to snails, to all the plants that are in the river and have always served as food for the families and communities near the river. When you take away a river, you don’t just take away the water, you take away a source of food.”

Renace and OXEC say they have helped reduce malnutrition through their local health and social development programs.

Matzir also laments the tremendous spiritual blow the Q’eqchi’ people have suffered from the damage to their sacred rivers and hills, and questions why the areas where hydroelectric plants are concentrated have the least access to electricity in the country. “It’s totally contradictory. Where does this energy go? Who is it for? Where do the profits go?” she asks. “They say we’re ‘against development’ but the real question is ‘development for whom?’”

Paramilitary violence

Opposing hydroelectric projects can prove deadly in Guatemala. In January 2017, armed men fired on peaceful protesters who were demonstrating against the PDHSA hydroelectric project (constructed by Solel Boneh, the same Israeli contractor that built OXEC) in Ixquisis, northern Guatemala.

The aggressors shot Sebastián Alonso Juan, a 72-year-old land rights defender, as he tried to flee. Alonso’s family told the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights that workers from the hydroelectric plant then beat him in the face and neck while he lay in agony. He did not receive medical attention for several hours and died before reaching hospital. Local media, indigenous groups and human rights observers all implicated the plant’s private security staff in the shooting, while some also alleged police involvement. PDHSA and Solel Boneh did not respond to requests to comment on the incident.

Journalists covering the impact of Guatemala’s hydroelectric plants also risk reprisals.

Rolanda García, an indigenous K’iche’ Mayan journalist, travelled to Santa María Cahabón in August 2018 to report on illegal logging allegedly linked to OXEC. She says she was filming her final interview with affected community members when they were confronted by a group of loggers brandishing machetes.

“They asked me what I was taking photos for and demanded I delete the images,” García tells Amnesty International. The men, whom she and her companions believed to be OXEC workers, insulted her colleagues, shoved one of them and stole his tripod. “They questioned my presence in that place, which according to them was their boss’s land. And when I asked who their boss was they wouldn’t tell me, they just said it was private property.”

The men isolated García and chased her to a nearby stream, where they cornered her for about 40 minutes until she agreed to delete her photos and footage. She says they threatened to rape her and throw her in the river if she refused. Days later, OXEC denied responsibility for the attack and condemned “all acts against human dignity and press freedom”.

García says she reported the incident to the authorities but doubts her attackers will ever face justice. “In Guatemala the laws favor the landowning oligarchy and businessmen because they are the owners of the companies that operate in our territories,” she says. “Many social leaders such as Bernardo Caal Xol have been persecuted because of the construction of OXEC, and other people have been marginalized but continue to be attacked in their territories, as well as us journalists who suffer attacks for amplifying the voices of those affected.”

A former subcontractor for OXEC and Renace tells Amnesty International he witnessed the men threatening García with machetes. The man, who requested anonymity for his safety, says he worked as a welder on the hydroelectric projects but began campaigning against them after seeing the social and environmental devastation they were inflicting on the area.

He accuses OXEC of making false promises, tricking locals into selling their land and buying off others with cash and free sheets of corrugated iron to reinforce their modest homes.

“They destroyed Mother Earth and the hills that are sacred to us,” he adds, before echoing García’s complaints about the legal system. “Justice is backwards in Guatemala. Those who have money do whatever they like to those who don’t. That’s why our comrade Bernardo Caal Xol is in jail.”

A dismantled justice system

Anger at Caal’s imprisonment has coincided with discontent over systemic corruption, the dismantling of judicial independence and the erosion of Guatemala’s public institutions.

The UN-backed International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) had made unprecedented inroads in recent years, including implicating then-president Pérez Molina in a corruption scandal that fueled mass demonstrations and his eventual resignation and arrest in 2015. Yet subsequent administrations have undermined efforts to combat impunity, cancelling CICIG’s mandate in 2019 and harassing, smearing and criminalizing activists, journalists, prosecutors and judges who denounce or investigate corruption and human rights violations.

Mounting public anger at corruption, economic inequality, and the state response to the pandemic erupted in a major national strike in July 2021 after Attorney General María Consuelo Porras ousted Juan Francisco Sandoval, the head of the Special Prosecutor’s Office Against Impunity. Sandoval, who fled the country amid concerns over his safety, had been investigating the discovery of almost $16m USD in the home of a former infrastructure minister, and allegations of Russian businessmen delivering bags of cash to President Alejandro Giammattei. The president denies the accusations.

Indigenous leaders led the strike, with broad swathes of society joining their calls for Giammattei’s resignation and a complete transformation in how the nation is governed. Indigenous protesters blocked highways across the country, while demonstrators in the capital burned tires and threw paint over police deployed to protect government buildings.

In a letter from jail, Caal thanked Sandoval “for being an inspiration to combat the corruption that has meant death, hunger and poverty for thousands of Guatemalans” and for showing “it’s possible to achieve truth and justice”.

Sandoval is the latest of several prosecutors and judges forced to leave Guatemala in recent years, including the nation’s first female Attorney General, Claudia Paz y Paz, who fled in 2014 when authorities made unfounded accusations against her and briefly froze her bank accounts.

Speaking to Amnesty International from Costa Rica, Paz y Paz warns that the erosion of the separation of powers has further fueled political persecutions and the criminalization of human rights defenders. “There’s a pact, an arrangement between the head of the executive, the legislature and, sadly, the judiciary as well. And what worries me most is that citizens are left absolutely defenseless – not just in the face of crimes committed against them going unpunished – but also against the fabricated cases of criminalization that we’re seeing. Accusations are inflated or invented. Evidence is forged and fabricated. The situation in the country is very, very delicate.”

Paz y Paz, who made history as the first official to prosecute grave human rights abuses committed during Guatemala’s decades-long civil war – including indicting former dictator Efraín Ríos Montt for genocide – describes criminalization as “a very powerful weapon against dissidence because it implies the loss of your freedom and a very grave risk to your physical safety… It’s a way of silencing the voices that denounce corruption and impunity.”

With Guatemala failing to guarantee indigenous peoples’ rights, Paz y Paz believes international pressure and solidarity could make a difference, citing recent US sanctions on current and former Guatemalan officials for acts of corruption, and lawsuits in Canada against mining companies accused of committing violent crimes in Guatemala.

The former prosecutor also takes hope from “the excellent work done by independent journalists, as well as the few honest civil servants who remain in the country”, and the recent national strike: “civic mobilization gives us a very, very powerful voice against the authoritarianism that we’re currently experiencing in the country.”

Back in Guatemala, Matzir is equally resolute. “We have a very firm foundation in the spiritual strength of our ancestors, who have been fighting for centuries to maintain our dignity, to maintain the possibility, the hope of building a better world, a fairer world for the generations to come,” she says. “The Mayan people have faced so many situations and now it’s up to us to keep going. We have to keep the candle lit and continue defending our rights.”

Bernardo Caal Xol’s case is featured in the 2021 edition of Write for Rights, Amnesty International’s annual global letter-writing campaign and the world’s biggest human rights event. This feature was published in Spanish in the November 2021 edition of Newsweek México. A shorter opinion piece on Bernardo’s case was published in the Washington Post in English and Spanish.

‘If they deport us, it’s a crime’: The Haitians who risked everything to give their families a chance

October 22, 2021

Emmanuel’s* dreams may seem humble, but they are not so different from those of millions of our planet’s inhabitants.

“To get a job to help my wife, my children. And to help my family back in Haiti,” he tells me, in a shelter in Mexico City. “We left in search of a better life for our families.”

Emmanuel has risked his life to pursue his dreams. He has crossed half a continent on foot and by bus. He has survived kidnapping, robbery and extortion. All so he could rebuild his life with his wife, son and daughter in a safe place.

Thousands of people like him have been forced to flee Haiti in recent years, due to extreme poverty and natural and humanitarian disasters that have left more than 4.4 million people facing crisis or worse levels of acute food insecurity. They are also fleeing widespread violence in a country where the government has been implicated in crimes against humanity and where even President Jovenel Moïse was assassinated in July.

But when they arrive in Mexico or the US, the authorities of these countries often seek to deport them to Haiti. This is not an appropriate response to a grave human rights crisis. International law exists precisely for situations like this and states that no one should be returned to a place where their life would be at risk.

Emmanuel is 34 years old. He was studying mechanics but had to drop out of school because he could not afford to pay for his classes. He left Haiti in 2009 to search for better opportunities. Leaving his country was “very sad,” he says, “but if there’s no way for you to live then you have to leave.”

He took his family to Brazil, where his wife worked in the daytime while he looked after the kids. Then he went out to work at night, operating an industrial machine. Yet they still did not earn enough to support the family. Moreover, he says he suffered constant discrimination from Brazilians who called him a “damn Haitian” and stigmatised him because of his socioeconomic situation. So they decided to leave again, crossing 10 countries with the aim of reaching the United States. 

In many countries, police or immigration authorities extorted money from them to let them pass. The worst incident happened in Veracruz, Mexico, where men without uniforms boarded their bus and demanded their documents. They grabbed Emmanuel and three other Haitian men, threw them into a car, blindfolded them and tied their hands and feet.

They then took them to a house, where they demanded $3,500 USD for each one of them to let them go. They beat them as they went through their belongings, says Emmanuel, and “started showing off lots of big guns”.

“We told them, ‘our families don’t have money to pay,’” says Josué, another of the kidnapped men. “And they said ‘if you don’t pay, you don’t get out of here. You have to pay. If you don’t, you’re staying here with no food or water, and we’re going to kill you.’”

The four Haitians spent nine days there, fearing for their lives, until their families managed to raise $2,000 for each of them. Upon receiving the ransom, their captors returned their mobile phones to them and released them on a highway.

Other Haitians in the shelter tell similar stories. Eddy, from Port-au-Prince, is 37 years old. He worked as a plumber for the American Red Cross in Haiti for five years but grew tired of the daily violence he faced in his country. “I’ve never been safe from violence when I’ve been there,” he tells me. “Never.”

Wearing a Bob Marley T-shirt, Eddy is lying on a mattress on the floor while the afternoon rain batters the windows. He says he saw terrible things during his trip, especially in the infamous Darien Gap, an almost inaccessible stretch of Panamanian jungle controlled by armed groups. He was robbed there and witnessed a mother and her 13-year-old daughter being abused.

“It’s hell,” he says. “I told God I’d rather die than go back there again.”

Upon arriving in Mexico, Eddy spent six days in an overcrowded immigration detention centre, alongside people he says were diagnosed with Covid-19. In addition, he says he was robbed again by three men with machetes and two with guns just after passing through customs in the state of Chiapas. They took all his belongings and when he begged them to return his passport, they beat him in the head.

Eddy estimates that he spent $3,000 to reach Mexico. But now, without identification, he cannot receive transfers. “That’s why I came [to the shelter]. I have family to help me pay for a hotel, but without documents I can’t receive money.”

Many people sold all their possessions in Haiti to finance their journey. Emmanuel says he sold all he had for the chance to give his family a better life. Now, after everything, he fears the authorities will send them back to a country where they have nothing.

“If we arrive here and they deport us, it’s a crime,” Emmanuel says. “You’re going to leave with great sadness, because you spent all your savings getting here, and you make it, and they deport you. And what are you going to live off there? You don’t have a house, where are you going to sleep? You don’t have food, what are you going to eat there? And how are you going to send your children to school?”

Nevertheless, the US authorities have returned more than 7,000 people to Haiti in recent weeks, despite acknowledging in May that the country was not a safe place to receive deportees. For its part, the Mexican government announced in September that it would provide refuge for more than 13,000 Haitians, but so far it has continued to deport hundreds more.

This is unacceptable. The authorities in both countries must guarantee the universal right to seek asylum and stop the deportations immediately. In addition, as the UN has stated, they must “offer protection mechanisms or other legal stay arrangements for more effective access to regular migration pathways”.

Instead of judging or stigmatising those fleeing Haiti, Emmanuel suggests that people in other countries consider what they would do if they were in their shoes.

“You would go to other countries in search of a new life,” he says. “Just like us.”

*Some people’s names have been changed to protect their identity.

This article was originally published by Newsweek en español

The perfect excuse: Mesoamerican authorities take advantage of COVID-19 to curb migration

May 25, 2021

Upon arrival in Amatillo, an unassuming town on the border between Honduras and El Salvador, several people quickly clustered around the cars. They offered all kinds of services – to guard the car, clean the windows, carry bags, exchange money, provide drugs, immigration forms, help us cross the river without immigration papers – and a new service: a negative PCR test for COVID-19. It’s the most convincing document on the illicit market. It has stamps, signatures and a coloured letterhead, with no need to put a swab up your nostrils. All at an affordable price and much cheaper than the actual test.

“This is the border,” one of the vendors said, “you can get whatever you need here”.

For years, people fleeing violence, repression, economic inequality and the effects of the climate crisis in Central America have faced terrifying obstacles in their way. They have risked extortion, kidnapping and sexual violence, among other dangers, in their attempts to reach a safe place where they can rebuild their lives. Now, during the COVID-19 pandemic, their journey is even more complicated. Not only must they avoid catching the virus, but they also have to deal with the prohibitive costs of testing, and extorsion by corrupt officials regardless of whether or not they have the tests, all while navigating complex terrain where governments are taking steps to deter migration.

PCR tests: a lucrative border business

A photojournalist working with the Inclusive Mobility in the Pandemic Alliance – a coalition of more than 30 civil society organizations in Mexico and Central America demanding protection for migrants in the context of the pandemic – approaches the border crossing in Amatillo by car. After filling in the exit form and getting her passport stamped, she drives onto the international bridge, leaving Honduras behind.

In the middle of the bridge over the Goascorán River that divides the two countries, a Salvadoran border official makes her get out of the car and asks if she has had a PCR test. “Yes,” the reporter replies and shows him the original certificate.

“This is useless,” he tells her and takes the document away to check it with one of the doctors in the immigration building. When he returns, he confirms that the test is effectively invalid, as it is not a “real-time PCR”, but an “antigen PCR”. Unable to pass, the photojournalist is forced to return to Honduras.

In the middle of the bridge, someone approaches and offers to solve the “problem” by providing her with one of those fake copies “with the original stamp” for US$70, nearly half the price of the real test. All this happens in front of the immigration authorities of both countries. None of them seem bothered.

One of the people working on the Amatillo border is called Pablo. “Here we work in whatever we can, helping people, tourists,” he said. Before the pandemic, Pablo earned enough money to support his family, but after the border closed for five months because of the COVID-19 outbreak he was forced to live on remittances from relatives living in the United States. That’s why he decided to diversify his business: “Before you just went through with your passport or ID, now you have to have your passport and a COVID test, and if you don’t have it, you can’t enter El Salvador or Honduras.”

Pablo and his colleagues “help” people who don’t have these documents. He explains: “there are some guys who deal with this paperwork, we don’t know where they get the documents, and the tourist can enter. They don’t test you, they just give you the document you want; it costs 20 or 30 dollars.”

Pablo says he provides tests for about six people a day. But it is only 8am and he has already “helped” three people, thanks to the immigration official who works in the office and regularly passes clients to him, in exchange for financial compensation. According to Pablo, approximately 20% of people crossing the border do not have the proper COVID-19 test.

Juan Manuel Martínez is the physician in charge of the El Buen Samaritano laboratory in the Honduran city of Choluteca. “The patients who come here are en route to El Salvador, as well as to Nicaragua and Guatemala. Lots of people travel for work and a smaller number to visit relatives who they haven’t seen for many months because of COVID,” he says. “With the test results that we give them, people who have returned from both the Guasave and Amatillo crossings and come here to be tested have no problem crossing the border.”

According to Martínez, El Buen Samaritano charges half of what most laboratories in Honduras do: “We’re concerned about the wallets of those who are going to travel and those who want to know whether they have the virus or not.” He says he knows nothing about people at the border offering fake PCR test certificates. “I hope the authorities are getting a handle on this because it’s not right, deceiving people and risking having someone who is positive entering the country and spreading the infection.”

The cost of a PCR test in Honduras ranges from US$125 to US$145, depending on the type of test. This is equivalent to approximately the minimum wage for one or two weeks of labor in the country. Hardly anyone who migrates can afford a PCR test to cross the border legally, and much less if they travel with their family.

The pandemic as a tool to curtail immigration

Between 1998 and 2017, Honduras was the second country in the world most affected by extreme weather events, according to the Global Climate Risk Index 2019. This trend continues to plague the country. In November, in the midst of the pandemic, Honduras was devastated by two consecutive tropical storms: Eta and Iota. According to a report by the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean, storms damaged 62,000 homes, affecting more than 4 million people and leaving 92,000 people living in shelters. Following the devastating economic impact of the pandemic and the estimated US$1,879 million damage caused by Eta and Iota, Honduras’ economy shrank by 10.5% in 2020.

By mid-January, more than 9,000 people, most of them affected by Eta and Iota, formed the first migrant caravan of 2021. They tried to cross Guatemala to reach Mexico and eventually the United States.

Guatemala is party to the Central America-4 Free Mobility Agreement, a treaty establishing free movement for Guatemalan, Salvadoran, Honduran and Nicaraguan nationals, with only their ID and without the need for a passport or visa. Yet Guatemalan President Alejandro Giammattei has stigmatized migrants who try to enter the country, declaring last October that “these people who are breaking the law will be blocked from entering, especially because they are using unaccompanied children, they are using women and the elderly as human shields, and they are putting us Guatemalans at risk”.

In response to this situation, Father Mauro Verezeletti, director of the Casa del Migrante in Guatemala City, laments that “more and more countries” are blocking the passage of migrants and refugees. “They are turning their policies towards racism, xenophobia and discrimination against migrants.”

The caravan that left Honduras did not get beyond Chiquimula, a small town in southeastern Guatemala. There, on 17 and 18 January, the Guatemalan army and police detained several people and used batons and tear gas against members of the caravan. Many people were returned to the border and the caravan dispersed. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights condemned the excessive use of force by the Guatemalan police and army during these operations. It also urged states in the region to “take measures to address the structural problems that trigger displacement and to coordinate their efforts to effectively protect the human rights of individuals in the caravan (particularly their rights to health and personal integrity, to seek and obtain asylum, and to non-refoulement).”

In Mexico, the authorities have also taken measures to restrict migration. In October, the National Migration Institute (INM) warned that foreign nationals who enter without complying with the health protection measures to avoid the spread of COVID-19 could face up to 10 years in prison. Then, in March 2021, the government announced the installation of new checkpoints on the border with Guatemala, equipped with drones and night vision devices, and a ban on land crossings for non-essential purposes for at least 30 days. It also authorized the use of force to disperse unauthorized groups, such as caravans. The day after the announcement, hundreds of members of the National Guard and the INM marched through the streets of Tuxtla Gutiérrez, the capital of the southern state of Chiapas, in an unusual and symbolic parade.

The Mexican government has denied any link between the measures against COVID-19 on its southern border and immigration operations, but both came together following reports of increased migration from Central America and pressure from the US government to clamp down on it. Moreover, the Security Report presented by the Mexican government on 22 March revealed that, since 19 February 2021, it had deployed 8,715 military personnel assigned to the “Development and Migration Plan” at its borders – more than the number of personnel assigned to any other activity, including security operations, the eradication of illicit crops and the fight against the illicit fuel market.

On 29 March, a Mexican soldier shot and killed a Guatemalan man at the border, highlighting the dangers of entrusting public security and immigration enforcement to the military. The army admitted that it had been “an erroneous reaction on the part of the soldier, because there was no aggression” against him.

Days later, on 12 April, the Joe Biden administration announced that it had reached a deal with Mexico, Guatemala and Honduras for all three countries to deploy troops to their respective frontiers “to make it more difficult to make the journey, and make crossing the borders more difficult”.

Fleeing during the coronavirus pandemic

When Luis Pineda left Nicaragua, he never thought about taking a PCR test in order to cross the border. Like many people in need of protection, he packed his ID, some money, clothes and a toothbrush in a backpack and set off.

Pineda says he was a truck driver in Nicaragua, so he had friends who were drivers and he asked them to take him to the border between Guatemala and Mexico. As he had not had his passport stamped when he left Nicaragua and had not taken a PCR test, he was forced to hire the services of a guide to cross the border between El Salvador and Guatemala, where a truck driver friend was waiting for him.

He was walking across the bridge when a border police official stopped him and asked for his documents and COVID-19 test result. Pineda told him: “I’ve had to flee Nicaragua and I couldn’t get a COVID test there, because that’s run by the government. As I’m politically persecuted, I can’t go to government clinics. That’s why I had to leave like this, with nothing.”

Pineda says the policeman suggested “sorting it out” to allow him to continue on his way and threatened to deport him. Seeing no alternative, he agreed to pay in order to continue his journey. “The official said: ‘There are seven of us here, I think about 250 is good’ and so I had to give them 250 dollars, because it was that or they would send me back,” Pineda says.

Rubén Figueroa, south-southeast coordinator of the Mesoamerican Migrant Movement, affirms that corruption related to COVID-19 tests has become yet another factor pushing migrants from Central America to cross borders irregularly.

“These people are victims of corrupt authorities because they are migrants,” Figueroa says. “The COVID-19 health emergency has been turned into a weapon in the hands of authorities to repress, detain and deport migrants, and for corrupt officials, who have always been there, to extort and smuggle migrants. The pandemic is another opportunity to increase the ‘fee’ they demand from migrants using threats in return for letting them continue their journey.”

In Pineda’s case, once he had paid the agents, he crossed the bridge, following their instructions, and arrived in Guatemala. He went to the parking lot and had a snack while waiting for his friend to get his passport stamped. “When the immigration officials arrived and saw me eating, they started asking me what truck I was driving, and I told them that I was being politically persecuted. They still asked me for my passport stamp and COVID test,” Pineda says. “But hey, there they were a little more conscientious and only took 150 dollars from me, for a soda to quench their thirst.”

I cowrote this feature with the photojournalist Encarni Pindado. It was published in the May 2021 edition of Newsweek México