Forty people died and at least 29 were injured in a fire that broke out Monday around 10 p.m. local time at a migrant center in Ciudad Juárez, a Mexican city on the U.S. border.
The fire started in the cell area of the facility, which is nothing short of a prison, and is located near the Lerdo-Stanton International Bridge, a few meters from the Rio Grande River that divides the Mexican city from El Paso, Texas. All the victims were all men, 18 years of age or older, most of them Guatemalan nationals: the figure was provided directly by the Guatemalan government, which reported the deaths of 28 of its citizens in the blaze.
“There were 68 migrants in that part of the facility at the time of the fire,” explains Rocío Gallegos, director of the La Verdad Juarez website, who has been following the whole affair from outside the facility since the outbreak of the fire. “Some of them had been deported to Mexico in recent days by the United States under Title 42” – a measure passed by the Trump administration, officially to limit the spread of Covid but still in effect nowadays, which enables the US authorities to deport migrants without going through the asylum process.
Others, however, “had been detained on Monday by agents of the INM, Instituto Nacional de Migración, in an operation carried out around the city aimed at clearing street intersections, where, in order to scrape together a few pesos, migrants clean car windows, sell sweets or cigarettes or simply beg,” Gallegos explains.
It all started around 9 p.m., when the migrants detained in the facility began to protest. Several witnesses tell us the reason, as also reported by local news outlets: they had been left without water since the morning. They were thirsty. The official version put out by President Lopez Obrador is quite different, alleging the protest was triggered as soon as word spread of an upcoming repatriation to the country of origin for a group of detainees, as provided by Title 42.
This is the twisted game that migrants have been suffering under for a long time: after days, weeks or months of detention in the U.S., undocumented people intercepted by U.S. authorities are taken to one of the many border points with Mexico. Once across the border, they are taken over by IMN agents and confined to one of the migrant centers that are springing up in all the major border cities. Here, a second period of detention begins that will only end on board a plane which will take them to their countries of origin. People are held in these centers for an indefinite period of time. This is also where people who are detained on Mexican territory end up.
The protests gradually escalated to the point where some migrants decided to set fire to mattresses, hoping to convince the officers to open the doors – which happened too late.
Images from several videos taken outside the facility show family members of the detainees, especially some of the wives, screaming all their anger at the Mexican authorities: “It’s the migrant police’s fault, what’s happening is their fault,” a Venezuelan migrant burst out, who was waiting for her husband’s release. The detainees included not only people waiting to be repatriated but also some who were waiting for their family reunification paperwork to be finalized, and some who, as in the case of Venezuelan nationals, cannot be sent back to their country of origin because they enjoy international protection.
“It is unacceptable to die in state custody,” denounced Blanca Navarrete, director of DHIA (Derechos Humanos Integrales en Acción). She explained to us over the phone that as a result, “we have called for a demonstration today [on Tuesday] with candles and flowers in front of the headquarters of the Instituto Nacional de Migración. The investigation must lead to the guilty parties: the victims died from asphyxiation, not from burns caused by the flames. How was it possible not to proceed with a rapid evacuation of the migrants once the fire broke out, as was done with the facility staff?”
She named the ongoing crackdown in the city as a key factor: “For weeks, there has been a real hunt for migrants on the streets of Ciudad Juarez,” Navarrete explained. “In many cases, the INM is enlisting the cooperation of the state police, something that is illegal since the agents don’t have the authority to stop and arrest people whose only ‘fault’ is being undocumented.” All “even going so far as to violate the sanctity of places of worship.”
On March 1, some migrants were arrested inside the Cathedral of Ciudad Juarez, an event that forced Bishop José Guadalupe Torres Campos to issue a press release railing against the city authorities, accusing them of “violating every human right.”
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