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Thousands Of Migrants Travel To Guatemala Hoping To Reach U.S.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Central America has suffered from the pandemic and from two big hurricanes, so it's not too surprising that thousands of migrants are seeking better conditions in the north. A large group of people from Honduras made it across the border to Guatemala. And for some, Mexico would be next. Beyond that, the border of the United States. Journalist Maria Martin is in Antigua, Guatemala, and joins us now with the latest. Good morning.

MARIA MARTIN: Good morning, Steve.

INKSEEP: What has happened at the Honduras-Guatemala border?

MARTIN: Well, what's been going on for the last two days is that maybe as many as 9,000 migrants were able to get through the border this weekend when their numbers overwhelmed security guards at the border. So many of these migrants are young men carrying nothing but a small backpack. But there are also families, women pushing strollers with little babies and some older people in wheelchairs. For most of Monday, there was a standoff between the Guatemalan security forces and the migrants who were blocking a major highway between the two countries. And the migrants were given an ultimatum to move. Now the Guatemalan government says that the migrants have been dispersed. Some have been transported back to Honduras. And others have broken off from the main group and are trying to make their way north to Mexico, then to the U.S. But the Mexican government vows not to let the migrants enter their territory.

INKSEEP: These sound like the actions of desperate people. What conditions are they fleeing?

MARTIN: They're very desperate people. They're very low-income. They left this area in Honduras. And, of course, Honduras is one of the poorest, most violent, most corrupt countries in the Americas and one of the areas hardest hit by the two hurricanes that struck in October and November and of course, by the pandemic. I spoke with Father Ismael Moreno, who runs an independent radio station in the region.

ISMAEL MORENO: (Speaking Spanish).

MARTIN: "With the hurricanes," says Father Melo, "and with the pandemic, Hondurans were left without jobs, homes, with no opportunities to get ahead." So many of the migrants say there's nothing for them in Honduras, that they would be prepared to do anything, that faced with a life of misery, violence and corruption in Honduras, that if they get sent back, they might try again.

INKSEEP: Although, of course, the pandemic has been going for many months. The hurricanes were last fall. Do you have any sense of why they would be moving now, just as Joe Biden is about to take office in the United States? Is that a pure coincidence?

MARTIN: Well, really, there were more caravans during the Trump administration because people see that this is a safety in numbers for them, cheaper than paying a smuggler. Many, of course, do see hope for better treatment of migrants under Biden. But the timing, I think, has more to do with the devastations of the hurricanes that were in November. Then came, you know, Christmas. Then it's a new year, and it's time to come up. And of course, this is due to, as Father Melo says, the desperation and the misery of so many Hondurans.

INKSEEP: It's just a reminder, I suppose, that people are driven not necessarily by policies in the United States, but by that desperation back home.

MARTIN: That's right. That's right. It was a new year. And they saw nothing left for them. Nothing was working in terms of getting any help from their government or hope for that.

INKSEEP: Maria Martin, thank you so much. Really appreciate it.

MARTIN: Thank you.

INKSEEP: Journalist Maria Martin speaking in Antigua, Guatemala. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.