At least 40 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 Tuesday.
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. He did not provide more details about how so many had died in the incident.
“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 deadliest 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.
Twenty-eight of the dead were Guatemalans, Guatemala’s national migration institute said, while 13 were Hondurans, according to the country’s deputy foreign minister. It was not immediately clear why those totals differed from the death toll given by Mexican authorities.
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.
In addition to the 40 who died, 28 others were hospitalized after being injured in the blaze, Mexico’s National Migration Institute (INM) said. All were adult men, officials said.
It’s not immediately clear how the fire was managed, if there were emergency exits or what protocols officials took to deal with protests.
Two migrants told Reuters that authorities had rounded up migrants off the streets of Ciudad Juarez on Monday and detained them in the center.
Alejandra Corona, a representative of the Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) which visits the facility once a week to monitor conditions, said it is split into two areas, one for men and one for women, each locked with a metal gate and supervised by a security guard.
The space is designed to hold about 100 people, she added.
“They put them into cells, and they don’t leave until they are transferred out,” Corona said, adding that migrants typically spend two days there.
Activists have frequently flagged concerns of poor conditions and overcrowding in detention centers as migration has risen.
“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, which supports migrant rights.
U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric said in a statement that the secretary-general called for a “thorough investigation” of the tragic event.
Mexico’s INM did not respond to a request for comment about when the Ciudad Juarez site was opened, or how many migration centers are currently in operation.
As of 2019, there were 53 INM detention centers operating across Mexico, according to a report from Mexico’s Human Rights Commission (CNDH), with a total official capacity of around 3000.
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.
Her husband, 27-year-old Eduard Caraballo, was detained on Monday by Mexican migration authorities and put in a holding cell inside the facility.
He managed to survive by dousing himself in water and pressing against a door as the fire blazed, said Infante.
“His chest was really hurting, struggling to breathe because of all the smoke, but he wasn’t burnt,” said Infante of her husband, who is now in a hospital.
The couple and their three children left Venezuela last October in search of better economic opportunities and a good education for their kids, as well as to escape rampant crime.
By late December, they had 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.
Mexico’s migration law says migrants can only be detained for 15 days under normal circumstances, though the Supreme Court in March ruled that such lengths were unconstitutional, and that migrants should be held no longer than 36 hours.
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.