CIUDAD JUÁREZ, México—As white smoke and orange flames started to fill the cell, one man attempted to escape by frantically kicking the cell door. Another tried to shield himself from the heat by pouring water from a toilet over his body. Guards, meanwhile, appeared indifferent in security camera video of the incident, and walked out of the burning building as screams could be heard on the street in downtown Ciudad Juárez.
Thirty-nine migrants died locked in that cell as the immigration detention center burned on the night of March 27, and another died later at the hospital. At least one migrant in the cell allegedly started the fire in protest at not being given food and water by the guards for 10 hours.
Survivors say those who died did so for one reason: they could not or did not pay a $200 bribe to security guards to be released.
Three survivors and two guards at the facility told VICE World News that the immigration jail at the center of the tragedy was a defacto “extortion center,” where only migrants with the means to pay were released. Others would have to stay in jail and be sent to Mexico City or deported back to their origin country.
“If you happened to be arrested and held at this jail, there were only two ways out. Either you transferred $200 or you got sent back to your country,” Joan, a Venezuelan migrant who said he paid to get out of the detention center, told VICE World News. He asked to withhold his last name for fear of retaliation.
Joan, 28, was locked up in the center for four hours on the same day of the fire, he said. He escaped death because his family in Venezuela transferred the money before 7 p.m. That’s the deadline he said the guards gave him to deposit the money or be deported the next day.
“I'm only alive because my family paid,” he said, as he grabbed the bars outside the detention center a day after the blaze amid a crowd of migrants, who had either survived the fire or were still looking for loved ones.
Allegations that the guards operating the center in Ciudad Juárez extorted migrants in exchange for releasing them promises to fuel further outrage at the Mexican government over the dozens of deaths in the fire. They also could explain why immigration officials in Ciudad Juárez arrested hundreds of migrants the day of the fire and brought them to the detention center, including families with children.
The migrant detention center in Ciudad Juárez was staffed by officers from Mexico’s National Migration Institute (INM for its Spanish acronym) as well as guards from a private security company. Both the INM officers and the guards allegedly ran the wire transfer-based operation to scam and extort migrants in detention, according to an official complaint (embedded below) as well as the three survivors and two guards who spoke to VICE World News.
Family members of the detained migrants deposited the extortion payments into the personal bank accounts of the private security guards in order to avoid a paper trail of the money going to Mexican officials, two private security guards who worked at the detention center told VICE World News. They said the profits were then shared amongst those running the scheme, including INM personnel.
“Each migrant was paying around $200 to $500 to be released,” said one guard who worked at the facility for four years, including the night of the fire. He asked to remain anonymous to avoid retaliation. “We locked the doors at 7 p.m. and if they paid before then we would let them out. Otherwise they were deported to their countries or sent to Mexico City.”
Jorge Vázquez Campbell, director of the Ciudad Juárez Bar Association of Refugee Defenders, filed a complaint with Mexico’s Attorney General’s Office on behalf of family members of the deceased migrants, accusing the heads of INM and its regional office of extortion.
“Starting with Francisco Garduño (INM’s top official) and his regional and local employees, all of them are criminals, they are extorting migrants,” Vázquez told VICE World News in an interview.
The complaint accuses Salvador González Guerrero, head of the INM in the state of Chihuahua, where Ciudad Juárez sits, and Daniel Goray Yosioka, manager of the detention center where the migrants died, as leading the alleged extortion scheme. Goray is now under arrest while González is under investigation, according to authorities. VICE World News could not reach them for comment or immediately determine who is representing them. Mexico’s government is also investigating seven officers who were working the night of the fire.
The complaint alleges that Guerrero and Yosioka charged migrants $500 for an “extended release” document that would allow them to be released.
“The corruption inside the INM can be proven by the multiple grievances filed in the state of Chihuahua by hundreds of migrants,” according to the complaint.
INM kept between 30 to 80 migrants locked up in the facility at a time, but only the male migrants were extorted, the guard who worked at the facility for four years told VICE World News, adding that his superiors were well aware of the scheme. Employees who refused to participate were fired or sent to another facility “where there was no extra money to be made,” he said.
Mexico City-based company SEICSA S.A de C.V. operated private security at the Ciudad Juárez center from March 1, 2022 to Feb. 28, 2023, according to a copy of the contract reviewed by VICE World News.
The extortion continued under the new provider, Mexico City-based Seguridad Privada CAMSA, which took over the facility on March 1st, according to the two guards, migrants held at the facility, and the complaint filed by an attorney representing the families of the dead migrants.
VICE World News reached out to the phone numbers listed on SEICSA’s web page and sent an email that was unanswered by the time this story was published. VICE World News also reached out to CAMSA but received no response.
A second employee who worked at the Ciudad Juárez detention center, including on the night of the fire, said that the guards were also selling cigarettes, lighters and “drugs of all kinds” to migrants detained in the center. He said they sold a pack of cigarettes for $10—the average price in Mexico is around $5—and lighters for $2.50.
“It was something everyone was doing,” said the guard, who said he worked at the center for four months. “We weren’t forced or anything like that to be part of the scheme, but if you said anything to the managers or didn’t go along with it, little by little they would push you out of a job.”
Both security guards said that the clandestine sales could have contributed to the fire, which broke out a few minutes before 10pm after a migrant allegedly set a mattress alight to protest that they had not been given food or water in 10 hours.
The flames quickly grew to cover the whole of the male cell block. The guard who has been working at the center for around four years claimed that the security staff didn’t have keys to the cell where the migrants were locked up and that the INM officer who was in charge had left for the night. “There was no one with keys to open the cell,” he said.
VICE World News reached out to INM through their press person and an email address provided on the official web page, but received no response.
INM has long been dogged by accusations of corruption. Migrants have accused officers of being involved in kidnapping rackets, extortion and working hand-in-hand with human smugglers across Mexico. In August 2020, the agency fired more than 1,000 employees for acts of corruption.
“This is still happening. I paid 1,000 pesos [$50] to get out of that damn prison. I had to ask my wife to transfer the money to a bank account handled by one of the guards,” Martín Flores, a Venezuelan migrant camping outside the offices of the INM told VICE World News. Flores said he was held at the center in February for 20 hours.
“This is nothing new. This has been happening for a long time and not only here, but on our whole journey since we entered Mexico,” Flores said. “From Tapachula [on Mexico’s southern border] to Ciudad Juárez, every immigration center or checkpoint is robbing us, extorting us.”.
Last week, Mexican authorities announced an investigation into CAMSA for its alleged responsibility in the migrants’ deaths. Mexico’s top security chief, Rosa Icela Rodríguez, said they also found administrative irregularities with the company, including that some guards lacked permits to carry guns.
“This company will no longer provide services in the state of Chihuahua -where Ciudad Juárez sits,” Rodríguez said at a press conference on Thursday.
Rodríguez also announced the closing of the detention center in Ciudad Juárez, declaring the facility “inoperable.”