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A stop on the journey north

Start Fund in Guatemala and Mexico

  • by David Burt
  • 01 Feb 19

David Burt; MEAL team, Start Network

Blog Post

In October last year the Start Fund's rapid response to the displacement of migrants in Guatemala and Mexico meant Cadena, Oxfam and World Vision recieved funding quickly to respond to the people's immediate needs including shelter, essential items and hygiene kits.

Start Fund Programme Officer, Megan Lilley and Senior MEAL Officer, David Burt visited during implementaion of the crisis response. In this blog post, David Burt, gives us his first hand account of the crisis and response on the ground. 

On a humid late November evening in a town square about ten minutes’ walk away from the Rodolfo Robles bridge over the Suchiate River that separates Guatemala from Mexico, children on hoverboards and rollerblades glided past illuminated fake Christmas trees and a flower display of poinsettias that spelled the town name in letters over a metre high.

In one corner of the square, while two armed policemen disinterestedly watched some thirty teenagers dance in unison to up-tempo remixes of ‘jingle bell rock’ and ‘last Christmas’ in a class organised by the municipality to keep youngsters active over the holidays, small groups of people, many of them families with young children, carried their luggage, and walked towards the border.

In a quieter corner protected from view by a hedge, a flurry of activity saw foldable tables and chairs appear, while staff from COCIGER[1] prepared some papers and sat down.

Staff from COCIGER prepare vouchers

In front of these tables a group of people quickly assembled; and as a line formed a clamour of chatter broke out, and I could hear the lilting Spanish from the Honduran coast mix with the lower measured tones of El Salvador. As the people in the line came forward, they registered their names and received vouchers that proclaimed: ‘good for one dinner’ and dispersed.

On the other side of the square next to takeaway pizza and fried chicken restaurants, a plastic gazebo had been set up and staff from local diner La Tortuga de Luz dished out plates of rice, frijoles and tortillas with coffee and soft drinks to the people waiting with their vouchers. Once served, the people settled on outside dining tables and as they ate, they too, watched the teenagers dancing.

Staff from local diner La Tortuga de Luz distribute food to those with food vouchers 

This was in Ciudad Tecún Umán in the San Marcos Department of Guatemala. An important step along the route of the late 2018 migrant ‘caravan’; a people movement that has seen thousands from across Central America join together in their journey northward to seek asylum in the US. Families, couples, single parents with young children, unaccompanied minors and young men, united by a common desire to escape the extreme poverty, organised gang violence and climate change-related crop failures of their home regions. 

A part to play: local authorities, civil society, international organisations 

Since October 2018, at this stage on the journey as they attempt to cross the Guatemalan-Mexican border, thousands have received shelter and food assistance from the Start Fund awarded humanitarian response orchestrated by Start Network members Oxfam, Pro-Vida and World Vision with their local partners and the municipal authorities.

On this particular evening I witnessed COCIGER, one of Pro-Vida’s implementing organisations, as they provided food support to the most vulnerable of migrants. Many of whom had faced extreme hardships combined with threats of theft, extortion, abduction, rape and murder at the hands of criminal groups on their way here. 

The majority of people on this journey stay in this town briefly, just one or two nights before attempting to cross the border and continuing. Some in Ciudad Tecún Umán tonight sleep rough, like those I met staying beneath the roof of the town square stage, others in one of the shelters that have been supported by the Start Network.

In several cases, with government capacity overwhelmed and resources stretched thin, it has fallen into the hands of civil society to meet the needs of the people travelling through. When local couple Consuelo Cristina Méndez Lara and her husband Edner Clinton Guzmán came to understand the scale of the crisis, first from watching the news, and then by witnessing the massive influx of people arrive in their town without anywhere to stay, feeling unable to stand by and not act, they joined forces with two other families from their church and decided to open a shelter.

They sought out local public cooperative space, rechristened La Casa de Migrante Cristianos Unidos, and with the blessing of the owner who donated it for free, converted it into a shelter which has subsequently become a point for Oxfam and Pro-Vida through COCIGER, to distribute necessary food and hygiene items to the people passing through, including many families with young children.

For Óscar and Yesenia[2], a married couple with whom I spoke in this shelter, leaving El Salvador did not feel like a choice. Óscar had worked for a private security firm until his uniform and access to goods drew him to the attention of members of the organised criminal gang Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13). He and Yesenia were threatened with death unless he were to assist the group extort the business he was employed by, so when the opportunity arose to join the people movement, he and his wife did not hesitate. For Óscar and Yesenia, who have attempted to cross the border legally and were denied access, anywhere is better than where they were, and they are currently in the process of requesting asylum in Guatemala. A process that COCIGER can advise on.

Though for the majority that want to continue their journey, numerous issues lay ahead. In the short term, the customs checkpoint on the Rodolfo Robles bridge opens and closes intermittently, creating challenges for those that want to cross. Consequently, many pay to be ferried across the river on oversized inner tubes, despite a marine river patrol that warns the migrants that they will be detained if they cross the border, a threat which in reality is almost impossible to enforce.

Some pay to be ferried across on oversized inner tubes

For the authorities, due to the political nature of this crisis, there was initially a reluctance to provide the infrastructure to assist migrants. After continued threats from the US to cut aid for countries seen as facilitating migrant transfers, the message that trickled down from the top was to maintain public order and dissuade. Nevertheless, the sheer scale of the crisis has necessitated action. The municipality authorities in Ciudad Tecún Umán have purchased a lease on a former post office building with the intention of converting it into a permanent migrant shelter.

Former post office building which may be converted into migrant shelter

The message they have received from this crisis is clear, these people movements will not stop. As more of these movements, otherwise dubbed as ‘caravans’ form due to the conditions that make life so difficult across Central America, so too will the number of people projected to pass through border towns like these be set to continue and grow. It will be the continued support of the local authorities, civil society and international organisations like the Start Network that will help cover the urgent needs of these people in transit.

Find out more about the Start Fund rapid response to alert 280 and alert 281: Displacement in Guatemala and Mexico


[1] Convergencia Ciudadana para la Gestión del Riesgo (Citizen Convergence for Risk Management)

[1] Not their real names

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Start Network Guatemala

  • by David Burt