38 dead after lighting mattresses in a center for migrants
Surveillance footage from inside the migrant detention center in northern Mexico near the US border, where 38 migrants died in a dormitory fire, appears to show guards walking away from the blaze and no making no apparent attempt to release the detainees.
The fire started when migrants fearing deportation set fire to mattresses Monday night at the National Institute of Immigration, a facility in Ciudad Juarez south of El Paso, Texas, the president said. Mexican Andrés Manuel López Obrador.
Authorities initially reported 40 dead, but later said some may have been double counted in the confusion. Twenty-eight people were injured and were in “delicate-serious” condition, according to the National Institute for Immigration.
Security footage, which was released and then authenticated by a Mexican official to a local reporter, shows at least two people disguised as guards rushing into the frame and then fleeing as a cloud of smoke quickly filled the area. They do not appear to have attempted to open the cell doors so that the migrants could escape the fire.
Authorities were investigating the fire, the institute said. The country’s attorney general has opened an investigation, Andrea Chávez, federal deputy for Ciudad Juarez, said in a statement. Mexico’s National Human Rights Commission was also alerted.
What caused the fire?
López Obrador said the fire was started by migrants inside the facility after learning they would be evicted.
“They never imagined that it would cause this terrible misfortune,” said López Obrador.
The immigration institute said it “strongly rejects the actions that led to this tragedy”, without further explaining what those actions may have been.
Video shows guards leaving as fire breaks out
Video footage shows the area of the facility filled with smoke within seconds, obscuring the camera’s view. In the video, two people disguised as guards are seen rushing into the frame and then rushing away as the migrants remain behind bars. At least one migrant is seen kicking at a cell door as the flames grow.
Mexico’s Interior Secretary Adán Augusto López told local journalist Joaquín López Doriga that he knew of the video.
Katiuska Márquez, a 23-year-old Venezuelan and her two children, aged 2 and 4, were looking for her half-brother following the fire.
“We want to know if he’s alive or dead,” she told The Associated Press. She wonders how all the guards inside got out alive and only the migrants died. “How could they not get them out?”
Migrants from Central and South America caught in a fire
The institute said 68 Central and South American men were staying at the immigration center at the time of the fire. Authorities were working with other countries to identify the dead.
The victims were identified as being from Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Venezuela, Colombia and Ecuador. Guatemalans made up the largest contingent, according to the Mexican attorney general’s office.
Guatemalan Foreign Minister Mario Búcaro said 28 of the dead were Guatemalan citizens.
“We are going to find those responsible for this,” Búcaro said.
Photos show massive law enforcement response in Ciudad Juarez
Photos showed ambulances, firefighters, Mexican soldiers and morgue vans swarming the scene. Rows of bodies were laid out under silver sheets in a parking lot outside the facility. The survivors were transported on stretchers into ambulances. A woman cried as she leaned her head against an ambulance.
Mexican border fire highlights systemic issues, advocates say
Global human rights organizations have called for stronger protections for asylum seekers and expressed outrage at the fire, which they say highlights systemic problems with detention and to the treatment of migrants.
The fire serves as a “reminder to governments in the region of the importance of fixing a broken migration system”, said Ken Salazar, U.S. Ambassador to Mexico, in a statement on Twitter.
The immigration institute has recently battled overcrowding at its facilities. According to a 2019 Associated Press investigation, about 20 migrants, officials and human rights advocates described a southern Mexico migrant detention center run by the institute as overcrowded and filthy.
“The extensive use of migrant detention leads to tragedies like this,” said Felipe González Morales, UN Special Rapporteur on the human rights of migrants. said in a Twitter statement. He said the detention of migrants “should be an exceptional measure” and not generalized.
Human rights organizations have for years warned of the risks people from Central and South America face when trying to seek asylum in the United States, said Rafael Velásquez, Mexican director of the International Rescue Committee, a global human rights organization, in a statement. The dangers have increased and the country’s humanitarian infrastructure has been “increasingly strained” in the face of “historic numbers of new asylum applications” and stricter border policies.
“The news of the fire at the Ciudad Juárez migrant detention center is devastating,” Velásquez said. “This is proof that there is an extremely urgent need to ensure that systems are in place to ensure the safety of people in need of international protection.”
Rising tensions in Ciudad Juarez
Tensions between authorities and migrants had apparently been heightened in recent weeks in Ciudad Juarez, a major crossing point across the border from El Paso for migrants entering the United States. The city’s shelters are full of migrants who are waiting for opportunities to cross or who have applied for asylum in the United States and are waiting for the process to be completed.
On March 9, more than 30 advocacy organizations and migrant shelters wrote an open letter denouncing the criminalization of migrants and asylum seekers in Ciudad Juarez and accusing the authorities of using excessive force in the detention of migrants.
Mexico’s migrant facilities have seen protests from time to time as the US government pressures the country to step up efforts to reduce the number of migrants coming to the United States.
Frustrations came to a head this month when hundreds of mostly Venezuelan migrants heard false rumors that the United States would allow them entry and attempted to cross an international bridge into El Paso. In October, migrants rioted at an immigration center in Tijuana, and in November dozens of people rioted at the country’s largest detention center in the southern town of Tapachula.
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Contributors: Hector Garcia De Leon and Cesar Brioso, USA TODAY; The Associated Press