CIUDAD JUÁREZ — Various local and state agencies descended on the site of the “Little Venezuela” migrant camp early Sunday morning to raze tents and makeshift shelters and encourage 800 migrants to seek refuge elsewhere.
“We have been insisting for some time that they need to go to shelters,” said Enrique Valenzuela, director of the State Council on Population (COESPO). “The object of (today’s) action is to relocate them to humanitarian spaces, where they can receive food, medical attention, job offers.”
Vehicles and personnel from COESPO, the municipal police, state police, Civil Protection and migrant advocacy groups, among others, arrived at the bank of the Rio Grande and for several hours attempted to persuade migrants to abandon their camp and board buses for shelters such as Kiki Romero and Leona Vicario, where COESPO officials said space is available.
Most of the migrants refused this offer, citing their distrust in government agencies and shelters. Shouts of “They will steal from us! They will send us back to the south!” filled the crowd.
Across the river, El Paso sector Border Patrol agents lined the bank along with National Guard soldiers, El Paso police and El Paso County sheriff’s deputies. A Department of Homeland Security helicopter circled overhead as migrants and Mexican authorities stood at an impasse.
Some migrants begged the authorities to “wait for the 21st.” The grace period granted to the United States government to prepare for the lifting of Title 42 comes to an end on Dec. 21. Many migrants believe they will be able to cross the border into the United States on that day.
Others appeared to dare the authorities to use physical force, yelling, “We survived the Darién, we can survive this! Do whatever you want to do, there are journalists here watching!” The Darién Gap is a dangerous jungle area in Colombia and Panama used by South American migrants on their journey north.
Many migrants also took out their own cell phones and made videos and live posts to Facebook and Instagram as the tensions heightened.
At 11:38 a.m. Juárez time, a unit of municipal police with riot gear and shields walked down the ramp to the river and began to forcefully push migrants westward, pulling people out of tents and knocking down tents and makeshift structures as they went. While most of the migrants camped at the site watched from above, a small group continued to protest and push back against the police officers.
Someone threw rocks from above the protest, striking one Venezuelan woman and one police officer. A few others began to set some of the tents on fire in protest.
One woman refused to leave her tent as officers tried to coax her, then grabbed her by the arms.
“Let go of me! Don’t take me away!” she sobbed. “Please, you have no idea what I’ve suffered to get here!”
She was carried away from her tent by police officers.
Migrants camping in tents further westward watched the approach of the riot units and began to gather what they could carry from their tents. They climbed to the top of the river bank holding blankets, shoes and baskets of food.
Behind the advance of the police, municipal workers tossed tents, blankets and clothes — much of which had been donated by Juarenses and El Pasoans during the last six weeks — into garbage trucks.
The decision to evict the migrants from the camp they had occupied since around Oct. 12 was a question of safety, Valenzuela said.
“It was time to take this action because we have detected cases of hypothermia,” he said. “Health authorities have asked us to do something about this. Additionally, the river bank itself is a high-risk area. They were building campfires very close to the tents.”
Temperatures have regularly dipped to the mid-30s or lower the past two weeks.
The United States has not asked Mexico to take any action regarding the migrant camp, Valenzuela said. He also dismissed the idea that migrants would be sent back to southern Mexico or deported as “a lie.”
“There are people who have been scaring (the migrants) and urging them to stay here at all costs,” Valenzuela said. “But it’s a risk to their health and to their security.”
As the protests died down and police officers continued to make their way through the camp unimpeded, David and Mari, a young Venezuelan couple who has been in the camp for five weeks, stood above the river bank with a backpack and bundle of blankets in their arms.
“We don’t know where to go from here,” said David. “We are tired. We don’t have any strength left.”
They do not want to go to a shelter because, during their journey through Mexico, they have been returned to its southern border twice already.
“That’s why people don’t want to leave here,” Mari said. “It’s not because they like it. People don’t want to move from here because they are tired of being sent back and being treated inhumanely.”
“We’ve risked our lives too much already to get here,” David said. “I don’t want to continue putting her life and my life at risk.”