Rows of federal police in riot gear faced the former factory in the Mexican borderlands, as soldiers watched on from the gun turrets on a pair of Humvees.
But the armed men weren’t preparing for an operation in the country’s bloody drug wars: they were guarding a group of 1,700 Central American migrants who were hoping to reach the US.
“If they were protecting us, they’d be facing the other way round,” said Alex Torres, 20, as he gripped the chain-like fence around the factory. He spoke in perfect English, having been taken to the US at the age of four, and his plan was to return to his family in Indiana after being deported to Honduras last year. “Imagine being deported to a war zone,” he said.
Migrants – from Central America and beyond – are increasingly seeking safety in numbers as they make the dangerous passage through Mexico. But the caravans are receiving somewhat rough receptions at border towns like Piedras Negras where locals react with suspicion and officials struggle to house and feed so many newcomers.
The problem has been exacerbated by the Trump administration’s clampdown on the asylum system: at many ports of entry, US authorities have imposed a limit on the number of people who can apply for asylum each day.The policy, known as “metering”, means that impoverished travellers are being forced to wait for weeks or even months – often in border towns plagued with violence and criminal activity. In small towns like Piedras Negras, local authorities and migrant shelters run by churches and NGOs are often unready to deal with the sudden surge.
“Metering puts a lot of stress on the local civil society and municipal governments,” said Stephanie Leutert, the director of the Mexico Security Initiative at the Strauss center at the University of Texas. “The backlog is also creating another floating population that could be preyed upon by criminal groups.”
As Donald Trump fulminated about a “crisis” at the border in his State of the Union speech last week, US officials were beefing up security at the international bridge linking Piedras Negras with its Texan twin city Eagle Pass. New gates topped with concertina wire were installed on the bridge while border guards patrolled the bridges and the banks of the Rio Grande.
US officials in Eagle Pass are now accepting only 15 asylum requests a day – and even fewer cases if they have to process any migrants caught swimming across the river, according to Elizabeth Cárdenas, a migrant advocate in the city.
That means a long wait looms for the newcomers. “They’re probably going to have to spend five, six or seven months here,” said Israel Rodríguez, a Baptist pastor, whose congregation provides meals for migrants.
Authorities in the city have offered a grudging welcome to the migrants, who have been held in the abandoned factory in an industrial quarter. Officials say they are only being held while they apply for a humanitarian visa which would allow them to work and access benefits – though most of the migrants are impatient to reach the US.
The strain on local resources could be seen at the diocesan-run Dignified Border shelter, where on a recent morning migrants rifled through the rubbish set out for collection, searching for warm clothes as the temperature dropped to single digits.
Another group of ten who had ridden north on the train known as La Bestia (The Beast) were allowed inside to wash up and eat a quick breakfast, then sent on their way.
The shelter, adorned with images of Santo Toribio Romo, the patron saint of migrants, managed to squeeze in a pair of Hondurans pulled out of the river by Mexican immigration officials.
“We didn’t want to spend another night on the river because last night I was completed keeled over, shivering with the cold,” said Juan Ramón Recinas, a 35-year-old welder from western Honduras, who was dressed handsomely in a red shirt, black pants and tan cowboy boots and matching belt.
The shelter director and Dominican missionary Obed Cuellar says his 80-bed facility was set up to serve migrants making a final push to the US. But since last summer the shelter has seen more people hoping to claim political asylum – with some arriving from as far away as Cameroon.
With a population of 165,000, full of factories and set 1,250km north of Mexico City, Piedras Negras isn’t an obvious destination for migrants. But Cuellar says migrants see it as safer than other border towns such as Nuevo Laredo and Reynosa to the east, or Tijuana and Ciudad Juárez to the west, which are convulsed with cartel violence and criminal gangs.
None of the migrants being held in the former factory had the intention of staying put and many seemed unaware of the long waiting list for asylum applications.
Like many others, Francisco Carranza, 28, said he was fleeing rampant violence in Honduras, and he was impatient to push on. “We didn’t think we’d be locked up in here,” he said, though he conceded, “We’ve been treated well.”
Mexico’s national immigration institute received more than 14,000 requests for humanitarian visas at the southern border – and has said any caravans moving north without registering would be stopped.
Some Piedras Negras residents wondered aloud why Mexican authorities were only registering the migrants after they had already crossed the length of the country.
“They travelled more than 2,000km and the government didn’t do anything until now,” said Óscar López Elizondo, the former mayor of Piedras Negras, who described growing unease that local resources were going to foreigners. “It makes locals upset to see money being spent on people from other countries.
Locals officials apparently fear the border could be closed, with disastrous consequences for the local economy, and – with their eyes on their US neighbours – they have made a show of taking a firm position.
At a press conference outside the factory, the Coahuila state governor Miguel Riquelme said that security was his top priority, and that no more caravans would be allowed to cross the state.
His public security secretary José Luis Pliego Corona, meanwhile, pulled out his smart phone to read prepared comments in English for a Fox News camera crew.
“The United States needs to know that we are containing the migrants in the state of Coahuila. We want to know what kind of people they are. We want the American people to feel safe.”