More than three dozen migrants have died in a fire in a dormitory at an immigration detention center in northern Mexico near the U.S. border, immigration officials said Tuesday.
The fire broke out when migrants fearing deportation set mattresses ablaze late Monday at the National Immigration Institute (INM), a facility in Ciudad Juarez, which sits south of El Paso, Texas, Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador said.
At least 40 people have died and 29 injuries have been reported so far, INM confirmed in a statement posted to Twitter on Tuesday. The people who were injured were transferred to hospitals for immediate care, INM said.
Authorities are investigating the fire, INM said. The country’s prosecutor general has launched an investigation, said Andrea Chávez, federal deputy of Ciudad Juarez, in a statement. Mexico’s National Human Rights Commission was also alerted. An inquiry into the fire was launched by Mexico’s attorney general’s office.
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 “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.
López Obrador said the fire was started by migrants inside the facility in protest after learning they would be deported.
“They never imagined that this would cause this terrible misfortune,” López Obrador said.
The INM said it “energetically rejects the actions that led to this tragedy,” without further explaining what those actions may have been.
Migrants from Central, South America caught in blaze
INM 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 migrants who died.
Victims were identified as being from Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Venezuela, Colombia and Ecuador, with Guatemalans as the largest contingent, according to the Mexican attorney general’s office.
More than two dozen of the migrants who died appear to be from Guatemala, said Karla Samayoa, spokeswoman for Guatemala’s Foreign Ministry.
Photos showed ambulances, firefighters, Mexican soldiers and vans from the morgue swarm the scene. Rows of bodies were laid out under shimmery silver sheets in a parking lot outside the facility. Injured survivors were carried on stretchers into ambulances. And a woman wept while leaning her head against on ambulance.
Tensions between authorities and migrants had apparently been running high in recent weeks in Ciudad Juarez, a major crossing point located across the border from El Paso, Texas 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.
The INM 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 INM as overcrowded and filthy, according to a 2019 investigation by the Associated Press.
On March 9, more than 30 advocacy organizations and migrant shelters penned 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 earlier this month when hundreds of mostly Venezuelan migrants, hearing false rumors that the U.S. would allow them to enter the country, 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.