CIUDAD TECÚN UMÁN, Guatemala — After days of walking and hitchhiking, a crowd of migrants rushed a bridge at Guatemala’s border with Mexico on Saturday and clashed with Mexican police who used pepper spray and closed the crossing’s large metal gates to keep them out.
More than 1,000 migrants were trying to cross the bridge spanning the Suchiate River, which delineates a section of the border between Guatemala and Mexico. After calm was restored, small groups of 20 or so migrants, many of them women and children from Central America, were allowed to file through in orderly fashion and register with Mexican migration officials.
The melee was the latest test of President Andres Manuel López Obrador’s resolve to get tougher on undocumented migration and stop the flow of migrants illegally entering Mexico, many of them trying to make their way to the United States.
The governments of Mexico and several Central American countries, the source of many of the undocumented migrants who have sought to cross the southwest border of the United States in recent years, have been under pressure from President Trump to help stem the flow of migrants. Mr. Trump temporarily withheld development aid and threatened tariffs to try to force his counterparts in the region to take a tougher stance.
The showdown on the southern border of Mexico on Saturday involved the vanguard of a mass mobilization of migrants, most of them Hondurans who set off from the northern city of San Pedro Sula earlier this week as part of a new caravan. They are part of a tradition of mass migrations that have offered safety in numbers to participants.
Over the years, such caravans have usually numbered in the hundreds and have mostly passed unnoticed. But in fall 2018, a caravan that at one point numbered more than 7,000, according to the Mexican authorities, caught the attention of Mr. Trump. He turned the matter into a campaign issue, warning against an invasion along the American border.
By some estimates, the current mobilization is also in the thousands. The Guatemalan authorities say that more than 4,000 migrants, part of this scattered caravan, have entered Guatemala from Honduras since Wednesday. Many of them had been expected to arrive in the small Guatemalan border city of Tecún Umán on Saturday or Sunday.
In recent days, as the caravan approached the Guatemalan border with Mexico, the Mexican authorities announced that only migrants who registered with proper documentation seeking asylum, work permits or other protections would be allowed to enter. Once registered in Mexico, migrants were transported on white unmarked busses to another location to continue their application process.
Mr. López Obrador said Friday that 4,000 jobs in southern Mexico needed to be filled, which seemed to raise hopes among migrants here that they would be offered employment at the border. But at the same time, the Mexican government also stepped up its enforcement of its border.
On Saturday, dozens of armed National Guard and marines lined the banks of the Suchiate River across from Tecún Umán to prevent migrants from slipping across. A recording warned migrants over a loudspeaker that the United States would not be granting asylum and would instead send them back to Guatemala.
“Mexico will offer opportunities of employment in your country of origin,” the message added.
On Friday night, Alex Valladares, 28, sat on a sidewalk with other migrants bedding down on plastic and cardboard in Tecún Umán. He said he had worked for years in Indianapolis as an undocumented mechanic until he was discovered by the authorities and sent back to Honduras, his home country.
“I’m searching for a better life, employment,” Mr. Valladares said.
At one time, his heart was set on returning to the United States. But now, Mr. Valladares said, he sees more opportunity in Mexico. A friend who had also been deported from the United States had called to offer him a job as a mechanic in Veracruz, a Mexican city on the Gulf of Mexico. All he had to do was get there.
“Better that I can stay in Mexico where they’ll give me papers to work legally,” he said.
Kirk Semple contributed reporting from Mexico City.