Mexican police and immigration agents detained hundreds of Central American migrants Monday in the largest single raid on a migrant caravan since the groups started moving through the country last year.
Police targeted isolated groups at the tail end of a caravan of about 3,000 migrants who were making their way through the southern state of Chiapas with hopes of reaching the U.S. border.
As migrants gathered under spots of shade in the burning heat outside the city of Pijijiapan, federal police and agents passed by in patrol trucks and vans and forcibly wrestled women, men and children into the vehicles.
The migrants were driven to buses, presumably for subsequent transportation to an immigration station for deportation processing. As many as 500 migrants might have been picked up in the raid, according to Associated Press journalists at the scene.
Some of the women and children wailed and screamed during the detentions on the roadside. Clothes, shoes, suitcases and strollers littered the scene after they were taken away.
Kevin Escobar, a 27-year-old from Honduras, was one of about 500 migrants who fled onto private property to avoid immigration agents. Sitting on the property, he yelled to them: “Why do you want to arrest me?”
Escobar vowed that he will never return to his hometown of San Pedro Sula, saying “the gangs are kidnapping everyone back there.”
Agents had encouraged groups of migrants that separated from the bulk of the caravan to rest after some seven hours on the road, including about half of that under a broiling sun. When the migrants regrouped to continue, they were detained.
Agents positioned themselves at the head of the group and at the back. Some people in civilian clothing appeared to be participating in the detentions.
After seeing what happened, some migrants began walking in dense groupings and picked up stones and sticks.
Officials from the National Human Rights Commission observed the action from a distance.
“We are documenting what is happening,” said Jesus Salvador Quintana, a commission official. “We cannot tell authorities in charge what to do, but yes, we are documenting and we will investigate.”
Mexico welcomed the first caravans last year, but the reception has gotten colder since tens of thousands of migrants overwhelmed U.S. border crossings, causing delays at the border and anger among Mexican residents.
Last Friday, local media reported a series of detentions of migrants in nearby Mapastepec, where thousands were awaiting normalization of their migratory status.
Mexico's National Migration Institute did not immediately respond to requests for comment. The National Human Rights Commission said it had interviewed more than 200 people who were detained in Mapastepec and transferred to an immigration center in Tapachula, across the border from Guatemala.
The detentions came as the U.S. has ramped up public pressure on Mexico to do more to stop the flow of migrants. President Donald Trump railed against the government of his Mexican counterpart, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, and threatened to shut the entire border down, but then quickly congratulated Mexico for migrant arrests just a few weeks ago.
Mexico already allows the United States to return some asylum seekers to Mexico as their cases play out. And government officials said in March they would try to contain migrants heading north at the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, the narrowest part of the country's south and easiest to control. Pijijiapan and Mapastepec are not far from the isthmus' narrowest point, which comes in neighboring Oaxaca state.
In recent months Mexican authorities have deported thousands of migrants, while also issuing more than 15,000 humanitarian visas allowing migrants to remain in the country and work.
A group of about 10 prominent social organizations recently warned that detentions of migrants and violations of their human rights have risen, blaming immigration agents and federal, state and local police. The groups also said the increased detentions have overwhelmed capacity at the immigration center in Tapachula. The National Human Rights Commission also said the facility is overcrowded.
In its most recent statement from last week, the Migration Institute said 5,336 migrants were in shelters or immigration centers in Chiapas, and over 1,500 of them were “awaiting deportation.”
The Rights Commission said Sunday that more than 7,500 migrants were in detention, at shelters or on the road in the southern state. It urged authorities to carry out a proper census of the migrants and attend to their needs, particularly children.
Most of the migrants who have arrived in groups to southern Mexico in recent weeks originated in Honduras. There they joined previous groups of migrants from other Central American countries along with some Cubans and Africans.