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Thousands Camp in Guatemala as Mexico Blocks Migrant Path

A Honduran migrant stands in line for breakfast at a temporary shelter in Tecun Uman, Guatemala, at the border with Mexico, Jan. 19, 2020.

The bridge spanning the Suchiate River between Mexico and Guatemala was open again for business Sunday, but few migrants crossed after a failed attempt by thousands of Central Americans to barge through the previous day.

More than 2,000 migrants spent the night in Tecun Uman, on the Guatemalan side of the border, uncertain of their next steps. Many got that far by traveling in caravan for greater safety and, they hoped, success in reaching the United States.

Mexico, pressured by the U.S. to halt the northward flow of migrants, is offering those who turn themselves over to authorities temporary jobs in southern Mexico, likely in agriculture or construction. But many of the migrants would rather pass through the country to try to start a new life in the U.S.

Volunteers spooned out a hot breakfast of beans, eggs, tortillas and coffee on Sunday to a line of migrants that stretched around the Senor de las Tres Caidas church, a blue and white Spanish colonial-style structure with a bell perched on top that's in the heart of Tecun Uman.

“We improvised this shelter because the other one was crowded,” said Alfredo Camarena, vicar of the Catholic church.

Camarena estimated that more than 2,000 migrants spent the night in his church, in shelters or on the streets, and that several hundred more would arrive in the coming days.

Mexican national guardsmen on Saturday slammed shut a metal fence that reads “Welcome to Mexico” to block the path of thousands of Central American migrants who attempted to push their way across the Rodolfo Robles Bridge.

Beyond the fence, on the Mexican side of the border, Mexican troops in riot gear formed a human wall to reinforce the barrier as the crowd pressed forward.

Mexican Gen. Vicente Hernandez stood beyond the green bars, flanked by guardsmen, with an offer: Turn yourselves over to us, and the Mexican government will find you jobs.

“There are opportunities for all,” he promised.

Migrants looking for permission to stay in Mexico passed through in groups of 20. As the day wore on, around 300 turned themselves over to Mexican immigration.

At a less frequently used border crossing called El Ceibo, nestled among national parks near the city of Tenosique in Mexico's Tabasco state, Guatemala's human rights defender's office reported Sunday that around 300 people opted to turn themselves over to Mexican authorities for processing.

Mexico's offer of employment, and not just legal status, represents a new twist in the country's efforts to find humane solutions to the mostly Central American migrants who are fleeing poverty and violence in their home countries.

Under threat of trade and other sanctions from the U.S., Mexico has stepped up efforts in recent months to prevent migrants from reaching their desired final destination: the U.S. Over the weekend, Mexican immigration officials deployed drones to look for migrants trying to sneak into the country. The National Guard presence was also heavier than usual.

As the latest caravans approached Mexico on Friday, President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador suggested that Mexico might be able to accommodate the migrants longer-term.

“We have more than 4,000 jobs available there along the southern border, and of course shelters and medical attention — everything — but on offer is work in our country,” he said during a morning press briefing.

The offer of jobs to foreigners rankles some in Mexico, a country in which half the population lives in poverty and millions are unemployed.

Lopez Obrador was quick to add Friday that “the same goes for our nationals, there's a way for them to have work.”

Despite the offer, distrust ran high among the migrants congregating just south of the Mexican border with Guatemala. Some feared they would be swiftly deported if they handed themselves over to Mexican authorities.

A few, relying on unfounded rumors swirling among the migrants, said they suspected a more selfish motive behind Mexico's reinforcement of its southern border.

“We've heard that the president of the United States has opened the doors and that he even has work for us, and that the Mexicans don't want to let us pass because they want to keep all the work,” said Carlos Alberto Bustillo of Honduras as he bathed in the Suchiate River.

The Suchiate has sometimes been a point for standoffs, as migrants group together for strength in numbers, hoping that they can force their way across the bridge, or wade across the river, to avoid immigration checks in Mexico.

The water levels of the river have been low enough this weekend to allow those who dare to simply trudge across. National Guardsmen lined the banks to warn against such undertakings, with interactions that resemble a high-stakes game of chicken.

Honduran Darlin Mauricio Mejia joined a dozen other migrants for a splash on the banks of the Guatemalan side of the river early Sunday.

Playfully, he shouted out to the guardsmen: asking if they could cross into Mexico to grab some mangos to eat.

One of the guardsmen responded, curtly: “Let's go to immigration and they'll help you there.”