CIUDAD IXTEPEC, Mexico – From his home in Honduras, Yair Dubón paid close attention to the messages coming out of Mexico, where President Andrés Manuel López Obrador vowed he would not do the "dirty work" of the United States by cracking down on migrants passing through his country.
Such assurances gave Dubón, a 38-year-old plumber, the push he needed to flee the gangs in his hometown and brave the journey through Mexico on his quest to reach the U.S. But on Wednesday, he found himself in a shelter in this city in southern Mexico, still more than 800 miles away from the U.S. border and unsure if he'd make it.
"It's really tough here," he said. "There are immigration checkpoints all along the highway. You can't trust anybody on the road."
Central American migrants like Dubón are learning that the Mexican government has abruptly changed its approach to the rising number of migrants passing through the country, no longer welcoming and assisting them, but instead arresting, detaining and turning back members of their caravans.
The humanitarian visas granted to migrants to live and work throughout Mexico have been cut off. The Mexican government has ordered bus operators to stop ferrying migrants across the country. Local police forces in several southern Mexican states have blocked migrants from entering town centers.
Even local citizens have stopped offering plates of food, water and bundles of used clothing, forcing migrants to scrounge for food, often picking mangoes that thrive in the tropical heat.
Mexico experts say the hastily-arranged response is the result of López Obrador trying to establish his new government while juggling two competing forces: His campaign promise to regularize migration through his country in a compassionate way and the constant threats from President Donald Trump to seal the border and sanction Mexico.
"The Mexican government is between a rock and a hard place here," said Rachel Schmidtke, a program analyst for the Mexico Institute at the Washington-based, non-partisan Wilson Center. "It’s a very delicate balance that they're striking where they’re trying to do more a pragmatic immigration management strategy, but at the same time not wanting to have conflicts with their neighbor to the north."
The new approach was on full display in April, when Mexican immigration officials and federal police officers detained 371 migrants marching in a caravan. It was the largest raid against a caravan, a chaotic scene where Mexican officials chased mothers, fathers and children into wooded areas off the road near Mapastepec in Chiapas state.
That harsh new reality for migrants in Mexico is a far cry from just a few months ago. Under Mexico's previous president, Enrique Peña Nieto, Mexico introduced a scheme known as the "Plan Frontera Sur" — the Southern Border Plan — that stopped migrants from riding the rails northward and sharply increased the detentions of Central Americans.
López Obrador assumed power in December, promising a more humane approach.
The new president promoted development in Central America and southern Mexico to "to make immigration optional, not necessary," he said last year in a letter to Trump. López Obrador also pledged to protect human rights of migrants, who are often preyed upon by criminal gangs while transiting Mexico.
In January, Mexico started issuing one-year humanitarian visas to migrants arriving in Chiapas, which allowed them to work and transit the country without having to hire a smuggler.
"We heard those comments in Cuba, that (López Obrador) was going to help us," said Wilfredo Piñero, a Cuban who fled his communist island for Mexico. "But we got here and it's not like that."