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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

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