At least 39 men died trapped in a migrant detention center in Ciudad Juarez, across the border from El Paso, after a fire broke out, according to Mexican officials, who blamed the fire on a protest by detained migrants.
The fire started around 10 p.m. Monday night, according to Mexico’s National Migration Institute, who said that 68 adult men from Central and South America were being held at the center. The institute said Mexico’s National Human Rights Commission is being asked to intervene in legal proceedings and to “safeguard” the rights of the migrants.
Mexico’s Attorney General’s office said that it is investigating the “unfortunate events” that resulted in the deaths of 37 people at the center and another two in a hospital. A further 29 migrants are in serious condition. The National Migration Institute told the Attorney General’s office that among the dead are 28 Guatemalans, 13 Hondurans, 12 Venezuelans, 12 Salvadorans, one Colombian and one Ecuadorian.
Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador claimed the migrants, who were being held in the detention center, started the fire that led to their deaths. “They found out they were going to be deported and responded, in protest, by putting mattresses at the door of the shelter and setting them on fire, without imagining that it was going to cause this terrible misfortune,” he said at a press conference Tuesday morning.
Charles Duverger, a former employee at Mexico’s Human Rights Commission who worked for 10 years monitoring immigration centers until September, said it defied belief that the migrants set the fire, noting that authorities take all all migrants’ possessions when they are booked, including their shoelaces.
Even if they managed to sneak in matches or a lighter, he said, the idea that they set the fire made no sense. “Who the hell is going to light fire to mattresses when they are inside a cell?” Duverger said, adding that it’s possible the fire was started by the government response to protests.
Duverger said he has seen protests before in migrant detention centers and it’s always because the migrants are being held in unsanitary conditions with inadequate space.
López Obrador, who swept to power in 2018 promising to help migrants and safeguard their rights, has done a U-turn since taking office. Under pressure from the U.S., which is seeing unprecedented flows of migrants from around the world try to reach the U.S. through Mexico, he has made it increasingly difficult for migrants to traverse the country. Among other things, he has empowered Mexico’s National Guard to do immigration enforcement while cutting the budget of oversight agencies like Mexico’s National Human Rights Commission.
In the 2022 fiscal year, U.S. authorities registered 2.4 million encounters at its southern border, a number that surpassed the previous year’s record of 1.7 million encounters. Many of those encounters are with migrants who attempt to cross multiple times.
The tragedy at the migrant detention center is “proof of the extremely urgent need to ensure that there are systems in place to provide safety for people in need of international protection,” the International Rescue Commission said in a statement. “Humanitarian infrastructure in the country is increasingly strained and more people are stuck in highly vulnerable situations.”
In June, 53 mostly Central American migrants died in Texas inside a sweltering tractor-trailer found in San Antonio. It was the worst tragedy on U.S. soil related to migrant smuggling in recent history.
In December 2021, 57 mostly Guatemalan migrants died in southern Mexico after a tractor trailer they were traveling flipped. They were packed so tightly that every other person was standing.