Surveillance footage from inside the immigration detention center in northern Mexico near the U.S. border where 38 migrants died in a dormitory fire appears to show guards walking away from the blaze and making no attempt to release detainees.
The fire broke out when migrants fearing deportation set mattresses ablaze late Monday at the National Immigration Institute, a facility in Ciudad Juarez south of El Paso, Texas, Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador said.
Authorities originally reported 40 dead, but later said some may have been counted twice in the confusion. Twenty-eight people were injured and were in “delicate-serious” condition, according to the National Immigration Institute.
The security footage, which was broadcast and later authenticated by a Mexican official to a local reporter, shows at least two people dressed as guards rush into the frame, then run off as a cloud of smoke quickly filled the area. They did not appear to attempt to open cell doors so migrants could escape the fire.
Authorities were investigating the fire, the institute said. The country’s prosecutor general has launched an investigation, Andrea Chávez, federal deputy of Ciudad Juarez, said in a statement. Mexico’s National Human Rights Commission also was alerted.
López Obrador said the fire was started by migrants inside the facility after they learned they would be deported.
“They never imagined that this would cause this terrible misfortune,” López Obrador said.
The immigration institute said it “energetically rejects the actions that led to this tragedy,” without further explaining what those actions may have been.
The video footage shows the area in the facility filled with smoke within seconds, obscuring the view of the camera. In the video, two people dressed as guards are seen rushing into the frame, then walking quickly off as migrants remain behind bars. At least one migrant is seen kicking at a cell door while flames grow.
Mexico’s interior secretary, Adán Augusto López, told local journalist Joaquín López Doriga he was familiar with the video.
Katiuska Márquez, a 23-year-old woman from Venezuela and her two children, ages 2 and 4, were looking for her half-brother in the aftermath of the fire.
“We want to know if he is alive or if he’s dead,” she told The Associated Press. She wondered how all the guards who were inside made it out alive and only the migrants died. “How could they not get them out?”
The institute said 68 men from Central and South America were staying at the immigration facility at the time of the fire. Authorities were working with other countries to identify the dead.
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 Affairs Minister Mario Búcaro said 28 of the dead were Guatemalan citizens.
“We are going to look to find those responsible for this,” Búcaro said.
Photos showed ambulances, firefighters, Mexican soldiers and vans from the morgue swarm the scene. Rows of bodies were laid out under silver sheets in a parking lot outside the facility. Survivors were carried on stretchers into ambulances. A woman wept while leaning her head against an ambulance.
Global human rights organizations called for stronger protections for asylum seekers and expressed outrage over the fire, which they said sheds light on systemic issues related to the detention and treatment of migrants.
The fire serves as a “reminder to the governments of the region of the importance of fixing a broken migration system,” said Ken Salazar, U.S. ambassador to Mexico, in a Twitter statement.
The immigration institute has struggled recently with overcrowding in its facilities. About 20 migrants, officials and human rights workers described a southern Mexico immigration detention center run by the institute as crowded and filthy, according to an investigation by The Associated Press in 2019.
The “extensive use of immigration detention leads to tragedies like this,” Felipe González Morales, the United Nations special rapporteur for human rights of migrants, said in a Twitter statement. He said immigration detention “should be an exceptional measure” and not generalized.
Human rights organizations have warned for years about the risks people from Central and South America face when trying to apply for asylum in the United States, Rafael Velásquez, Mexico director for the International Rescue Committee, a global human rights organization, said in a statement. The dangers have increased, and humanitarian infrastructures in the country have been “increasingly strained” amid “historic numbers of new asylum claims” and stricter border policies.
“The news of the fire at the migrant detention center in Ciudad Juárez is devastating,” Velásquez said. “This 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.”
Tensions between authorities and migrants had apparently been running high in recent weeks in Ciudad Juarez, a major crossing point across the border from El Paso for migrants entering the United States. Shelters in the city are full of migrants waiting for opportunities to cross or who have requested asylum in the U.S. and are waiting out the process.
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 authorities of excessive force in detaining migrants.
Mexico’s migrant facilities have seen protests from time to time as the American government has pressured the country to ramp up efforts to reduce the number of migrants coming to United States.
Frustrations reached a fever pitch this month when hundreds of migrants, most of them Venezuelan, heard false rumors that the U.S. would allow them to enter and tried to cross an international bridge to El Paso. In October, migrants rioted at a Tijuana immigration center, and in November, dozens rioted at the country’s largest detention center in the southern city of Tapachula.
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Contributing: Hector Garcia De Leon and Cesar Brioso, USA TODAY; The Associated Press