CIUDAD HIDALGO, Mexico (AP) — The Mexican banks of the Suchiate river dawned Sunday with a heavy presence of immigration agents in place to enforce Mexico’s new limits on all but essential travel at its shared border with Guatemala.
Dozens of immigration agents lined the riverside asking those who landed on the giant innertube rafts that carry most of the cross-border traffic for documentation and turning many back.
But those turned away weren’t migrants, they were the small-time Guatemalan merchants and residents from Tecun Uman, across the river, who buy in bulk in Mexico to re-sell in Guatemala or purchase household items when the exchange rate favors it.
“They haven’t let us enter because they think we’re migrants when really we’re only coming to shop,” said Amalia Vázquez, a Guatemalan citizen with her baby tied to her back and seven other relatives accompanying her. Vázquez said her family travels the 100 kilometers monthly from Quetzaltenango to buy plastic items and sweets they re-sell at home.
After a negotiation, immigration agents allowed her sister and another relative to pass, but they had to leave their IDs with agents while they shopped. Nearby, other agents turned away a man who said he was just coming to buy his medicine.
The Mexican government has interrupted the usually free-flowing cross-river traffic here before, infuriating merchants on both sides. In recent years, as migrant caravans arrived in Tecun Uman, Mexican troops lined the Mexican side of the Suchiate and largely stopped the raft traffic.
The last time was in January 2020 when hundreds of soldiers blocked large groups of migrants trying to cross.
This time there is no large migrant presence across the river, but Mexico is again under pressure to slow the flow of migrants north as the U.S. government wrestles with growing numbers, especially of families and unaccompanied minors.
Many of those, however, are believed to be traveling with smugglers who can simply choose among the hundreds of unmonitored crossing points on Mexico’s long jungle borders with Guatemala and Belize.
The government said the measures that went into effect Sunday — one year into the pandemic — were aimed at slowing the spread of COVID-19. But most saw it as a cover to again try to control illegal migration and no one was talking about health concerns. The U.S. and Mexico have had a similar limit on non-essential travel on their shared border for a year, but Mexico is one of the few countries to otherwise not impose health restrictions on people entering the country by land or air.