MEXICO CITY (Reuters) - More Honduran migrants tried to join a caravan of several thousand moving through Guatemala on Wednesday, defying calls by authorities not to make the journey after U.S. President Donald Trump threatened to cut off regional aid in reprisal.
The caravan has grown steadily since it left the Honduran city of San Pedro Sula on Saturday. The migrants hope to reach Mexico and then cross its northern border with the United States, to seek refuge from lawlessness and poverty.
Under Trump, the United States has already sought to sharply decrease aid to Central America.
In 2016, the United States provided some $131.2 million in aid to Guatemala, $98.3 million to Honduras, and $67.9 million to El Salvador, according to U.S. official data.
By 2019, those sums were projected to fall to $69.4 million for Guatemala, $65.8 million for Honduras, and $45.7 million in the case of El Salvador. Combined, the cuts amount to a reduction of almost 40 percent for the three nations.
Funding is allocated to a range of areas including promotion of democracy, human rights and governance, economic development, education and security.
As well as the cuts, the Trump administration asked Congress to shift the balance of aid in 2019 toward security and rule-of-law efforts and away from governance and economic growth programs, according to the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service.
The U.S. contributions were worth more than 1 percent of the respective budgets of the three countries in 2016.
However, the Central American nations are far more dependent on remittances from migrants in the United States.
Honduras received $4.3 billion in remittances in 2017, according to World Bank data, a sum equivalent to nearly 19 percent of the country’s gross domestic product. In El Salvador remittances were worth over 20 percent of GDP last year and more than 11 percent of total economic output in Guatemala.
Critics of Trump’s ongoing cuts to Central American assistance fear that less U.S. engagement in the region risks aggravating the problems that encouraged migration in the first place.
Last month, Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernandez told Reuters that cuts in U.S. aid would make it harder to stem illegal immigration.
Escalating crime and violence, and a surge in unaccompanied children in 2014 at the U.S. border, prompted the two previous U.S. administrations to increase funding, including equipment, training and other assistance to the region.
That aid was conditioned on El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala showing progress on issues such as human smuggling, drug trafficking and dissuading citizens from migrating illegally to the United States.
Today, U.S. retreat from the region has opened the door to Trump’s trade adversary China to establish a firmer foothold. In August, El Salvador broke off diplomatic ties with Taiwan in favor of China, citing economic reasons. Panama did so in 2017.
In the interview with Reuters, Hernandez said he welcomed China’s growing role in the region as an opportunity.”
The migrant exodus follows a similar caravan of Central Americans that started out from southern Mexico last March and that ultimately led to hundreds of migrants either seeking asylum in the United States or remaining in Mexico.
Many of the migrants on that trek were Hondurans. Central Americans followed it closely in the media, in part due to Trump’s repeated criticism of it. That publicity raised the profile of caravans as a potentially safer way to reach Mexico or the United States.
Although the current caravan was organized independently of the March version, at least some of its members were connected on social media to people who traveled with the first group.
The three countries have long been among the poorest in the Americas and the most violent in the world.
Economic desperation and fear of brutal street gangs known as Maras are consistently cited by migrants as incentives to leave in spite of the costs of paying people traffickers, the risks of deportation, being robbed or even killed en route.
Murder rates in El Salvador and Honduras have fallen in recent years, but they still had the world’s highest and second-highest rates in 2016, according to the latest available World Bank data - 83 and 57 homicides per 100,000 head of population respectively.
Guatemala ranked 10th at 27 per 100,000, the figures showed. By comparison, the U.S. homicide rate was 5.3 that year.
Last year Honduras and El Salvador were among the five countries in the Americas with the lowest GDP per capita, with Guatemala close behind. At $2,480, the figure for Honduras was 24 times lower than the United States, World Bank data show.
Reporting by Dave Graham and Delphine Schrank; Editing by Chris Reese