Hundreds of asylum seekers are forming new migrant caravans in Honduras, planning to walk thousands of kilometers through Central America to the United States via Guatemala and Mexico, in search of a better life under the new administration of President-elect Joe Biden.
A first group of some 300 people set out at dawn on Thursday from San Pedro Sula, the second-largest city in Honduras, headed for Corinto, on the border with Guatemala, some 100 kilometers (60 miles) northwest.
Traveling in small groups, some bearing the Honduran flag, most of the migrants wore face masks to protect against the coronavirus.
"We trust God that Biden is going to help us," said Amanda, a mother traveling with her 10-year-old son.
According to social media pages, another 3,000 people are to meet at San Pedro Sula on Thursday evening to leave in the small hours for Corinto or Agua Caliente elsewhere on the border, some 260 kilometers away.
The migrants say they are escaping poverty, unemployment and gang and drug violence, as well as the aftermath of two violent hurricanes that hit the country last November.
The country has meanwhile mobilized 7,000 police officers to supervise the migrants on their journey to the Guatemalan border.
"We are fleeing poverty. I have not had a job since March, when the pandemic began," said Jessenia Ramirez, 36, who had worked as a restaurant cook and leaves behind her husband and three children in hopes of being able to better provide for them.
But in a message to the group, Mark Morgan, acting Commissioner of the US Customs and Border Protection warned them not to "waste your time and money".
"The dangerous journey both puts you in harm's way and endangers the lives and health of those in the US and regional countries through the potential spread of Covid-19," he said in a statement last week.
The US commitment to the "rule of law and public health" is not affected by a change in the administration, he stressed, and migrant caravans will not be allowed to make their way north in violation of national sovereignty and immigration laws.
- 'Deadly journey' -
On Friday, a group of 3,000 people is scheduled to leave at dawn from the San Pedro Sula bus terminal in Honduras.
The migrants are hopeful that Biden, who takes over the US presidency on January 20, will be more flexible than his predecessor Trump, a possibility already rejected by Washington.
"This is a deadly journey -- the US Border Patrol recovered more than 250 bodies along the US-Mexico border last fiscal year. We saw two deaths just last week, when smugglers abandoned dozens of migrants in a winter storm that dumped two feet of snow near Big Bend, Texas," Morgan added.
Honduras police chief Julian Hernandez meanwhile told reporters that "organized crime is promoting the caravans."
"It is sad to see these families leave with hope of improving their living conditions, at the risk of falling into the hands of these criminals," he said.
More than a dozen migrant caravans have set off from Honduras since October 2018 -- at least four of them with 3,000 people each. But all have run up against thousands of US border guards and soldiers sent by President Donald Trump's administration.
- Guatemala on alert -
Guatemala, Mexico and Honduras have an agreement with the United States to stop north-bound migratory flows from the south of the continent.
Guatemala on Thursday declared seven departments in a state of "alert" as the amassing continued, but it also provided checkpoints along the caravan route to provide support for those who needed it.
The decree, published in the government gazette, cited concern for the "safety of the inhabitants" of departments through which the caravan would transit, and gave security forces the authority to "forcibly dissolve any type of public meeting or demonstration" held without authorization.
And Mexican authorities said late Thursday that 500 immigration officers were being deployed to the Guatemalan border in anticipation of the caravan's arrival.
Biden has promised "a fair and humane immigration system" and pledged aid to tackle the root causes of poverty and violence that drive Central Americans to the United States.
Trump, on the other hand, froze a $750 million aid package agreed by his predecessor Barack Obama -- whose vice president was Biden.
The outgoing, twice-impeached president has characterized immigrants from Mexico as "rapists" who were "bringing drugs" and other criminal activity with them to the United States.
Guatemala's government has warned that anyone wanting to pass through its territory must show a negative coronavirus test and have their papers in order.
Mexico's consulate in San Pedro Sula, from where caravans usually leave, warned that its government "does not encourage and will not allow the illegal entry of caravans."