By Patrick J. Mcdonnell and Kate Linthicum
Los Angeles Times
TAPACHULA, Mexico _ President Donald Trump criticized Mexico and three Central American nations Monday for failing to stop a caravan of immigrants bound for the United States that has swelled in size to several thousand people.
On Twitter, Trump said the U.S. “will begin cutting off, or substantially reducing” aid to Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador for failing to prevent the caravan from heading north in recent days.
He also criticized Mexico, which did not deter thousands of immigrants from illegally crossing the Suchiate River from Guatemala into Mexico on Friday and Saturday. On Sunday, Mexican authorities again failed to halt the migrants as they started marching en masse into Mexico.
“Sadly, it looks like Mexico’s Police and Military are unable to stop the Caravan heading to the Southern Border of the United States,” Trump tweeted.
Trump said that the caravan includes criminals as well as “unknown Middle Easterners” – a claim that is dubious. The caravan, which on Monday arrived in the Mexican city of Tapachula, appears to be made up almost entirely of people from Honduras who say they are fleeing gang violence or political repression or are seeking economic opportunity in the United States.
The caravan formed an imposing bloc as it began to march early Sunday on the only road out of the small Mexican border town of Ciudad Hidalgo.
Several times, large groups of police officers clad in riot gear blocked the road but then retreated. When a small group of immigration officials tried to stop the caravan to persuade its members to apply for political asylum, the caravan swept past them.
Mexico may be unwilling to use force to stop the caravan because the group includes hundreds of women and children, some in strollers. It could also be because of the daunting size of the caravan, which stretched for at least two miles Sunday and may include as many as 7,000 people.
The group rested overnight in downtown Tapachula.
Early Monday, thousands remained gathered in a central plaza, parks and other sites in this subtropical city, awaiting word on when to renew the trek north.
“We’re ready to go,” said Selvin Morales, 28, who was resting in the shade with several other people from the Honduran city of San Pedro Sula, one of the most dangerous cities in the world and the starting point of the caravan about 10 days ago.
“What life do we have there?” said Morales, adding that he used to earn the equivalent of about $200 a month as a construction worker.
“I’ve never been to the United States but everyone says you can lead a decent life there,” he said.
Sitting next to him was Jose Antonio Lopez, 36, who said he ran a small grocery store in San Pedro Sula. But it was impossible to make a living, he said, because gang members constantly demanded extortion payments.
“One group comes one day and makes you pay, and the next day another group demands money,” Lopez said. “If you don’t pay, they kill you and your family. They have no qualms about it.”
Lopez said he had a message for Trump: “Stop selling arms to Honduras and Central America. There are too many guns already.”
Aid workers handed out food and water in the plaza, where a kind of festival atmosphere pervaded, though many seemed anxious to move on from the grimy scene. Garbage was everywhere and the plaza was beginning to reek.
Shortly before noon, the group set out on foot to reach the town of Huixtla, another 20 miles north.
An organizer with a megaphone and green vest gave directions: “Men at the front, women and children to the rear.”
Trump has made the caravan a campaign issue at rallies across the country ahead of the midterm elections.
It was unclear whether Trump would be able to follow through on his threats to cut aid to Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador. While U.S. presidents have significant foreign policy powers as a general matter, foreign aid is provided by law enacted by Congress and would have to be changed by law.
Rep. Eliot L. Engel (D-N.Y.), who sits on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said Monday that he would work to ensure that Trump does not act without congressional approval.
“Fortunately, Congress _ not the president _ has the power of the purse,” Engel said in a statement. “My colleagues and I will not stand idly by as this administration ignores congressional intent.”
Last week, Trump threatened to scrap a pending free trade agreement if Mexico did not stop the caravan.
Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto has said repeatedly that no migrants will be allowed to enter the country in an “irregular” manner.
But Gerardo Hernandez, head of the civil protection agency in the municipality of Suchiate, Chiapas, said that at least 7,233 immigrants who crossed illegally had been registered at a shelter in Ciudad Hidalgo.
While the large group marching through Mexico captured international attention, another caravan of migrants from Honduras was making its way north. About 1,000 have crossed into Guatemala, aiming for the Guatemala-Mexico border.
The caravans are designed to bring awareness to the conditions that have prompted many people to leave Central America, and to provide safety in numbers from the risks of the migrant trail.
Robberies, rapes and assaults _ by smugglers, cartel members and law enforcement _ are common. In one incident in 2010, 72 kidnapped migrants were killed by a cartel in northern Mexico.