Atleast 39 migrants from Central and South America died after a fire broke out late on Monday at a migrant detention center in the Mexican northern border city of Ciudad Juarez, apparently caused by a protest over deportations, officials said on Tuesday.
Twenty-eight of the dead at the center were Guatemalans, Guatemala’s national migration institute said.
Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador said authorities believed the blaze in the city opposite El Paso, Texas, broke out at 9:30 p.m. local time as some migrants set fire to mattresses in protest after discovering they would be deported.
“They didn’t think that would cause this terrible tragedy,” Lopez Obrador told a news conference, noting that most migrants at the facility were from Central America and Venezuela.
The fire, one of the most lethal to hit the country in years, occurred as the United States and Mexico are battling to cope with record levels of border crossings at their shared frontier.
A Reuters witness at the scene overnight saw bodies laid out on the ground in body bags behind a yellow security cordon, surrounded by emergency vehicles. The fire had been extinguished.
Karla Samayoa, a spokesperson for Guatemala’s foreign ministry, said Mexican officials had informed them that some Venezuelans at the center had set mattresses alight.
All told, there were 68 adult men from Central and South America staying at the facility in the city opposite El Paso, Texas, Mexico’s National Migration Institute (INM) said.
On top of the 39 that died, 29 others were in hospital and in serious condition after being injured in the blaze, the office of the attorney general said.
As migration has risen in recent years, advocates have frequently flagged concerns of poor conditions and overcrowding in the detention centers run by Mexico’s immigration authorities.
“Last night’s events are a horrible example of why organizations have been working to limit or eliminate detention in Mexico,” said Gretchen Kuhner, director of the Mexico-based Institute for Women in Migration that supports migrant
White House National Security Council spokesperson Adrienne Watson on Twitter expressed sorrow over the “heartbreaking” loss of life, and said the U.S. government stood ready to provide Mexico with any necessary support.
Viangly Infante, a Venezuelan national, had been waiting outside the center when the fire started.
“I was here since one in the afternoon waiting for the father of my children, and when 10 p.m. rolled around, smoke started coming out from everywhere,” the 31-year-old Venezuelan national told Reuters. rights.
Her husband, 27-year-old Eduard Caraballo, was detained on Monday by Mexican migration authorities and put in a holding cell inside the facility.
When the fire started he managed to survive by dousing himself in water and pressing against a door, said Infante.
“His chest was really hurting, struggling to breath because of all the smoke, but he wasn’t burnt,” said Infante of her husband who is now in hospital.
The couple and their three children left Venezuela in October last year in search of better economic opportunities and a good education for their kids, as well as to escape rampant crime.
By late December, they reached the U.S. border and crossed into Eagle Pass, Texas where they handed themselves over to U.S. migration authorities. But they were immediately returned to Mexico, where they then headed by bus to Ciudad Juarez.
Recent weeks have seen a buildup of migrants in Mexican border cities as authorities attempt to process asylum requests using a new U.S. government app known as CBP One.
Many migrants feel the process is taking too long and earlier this month clashes occurred between U.S. security and hundreds of mostly Venezuelan migrants at the border after frustration welled up about securing asylum appointments.
In January, the Biden administration said it would expand Trump-era restrictions to rapidly expel Cuban, Nicaraguan and Haitian migrants caught crossing the U.S.-Mexico border in an effort to contain the border flows.
That came after a decision in October to the expand expulsions, under a controversial policy known as Title 42, to Venezuelans.
At the same time, the United States said it would allow up to 30,000 people from those countries to enter the country by air each month.
The blaze in Ciudad Juarez is one of the deadliest incidents to afflict migrants in Mexico in the past few decades.
In December 2021, at least 55 people, mostly Guatemalans, were killed and dozens were injured when a truck packed with migrants flipped over in the southern border state of Chiapas.
Seventy-two migrants were massacred by drug cartel gunmen in the northern Mexican state of Tamaulipas in 2010.
Forty-nine children died following a blaze in a daycare center in the northern city of Hermosillo in 2009.