MEXICO CITY (AP) — Migrants fearing deportation set fire to mattresses at an immigration detention center in northern Mexico, starting a fire that killed 39 people, the president said Tuesday after one of the deadliest incidents in an immigration lockdown in the country.
Hours after the fire broke out late Monday, rows of bodies were laid out under shimmering silver sheets outside the Ciudad Juarez facility, which is across from El Paso, Texas, and a key migrant border crossing. Ambulances, firefighters and morgue vans streamed past the scene.
39 people died and 29 were injured and are in “sensitively serious” condition, according to the National Immigration Institute. At the time of the fire, 68 men from Central and South America were being held at the facility, the agency said. A Guatemalan official said many may have come from this Central American country.
President Andrés Manuel López Obrador said the fire was set by migrants at the facility in protest after learning they were being deported.
“You never thought that this would cause this terrible calamity,” López Obrador said, adding that the director of the country’s immigration service was on the scene.
Tensions between authorities and migrants appear to have run high in Ciudad Juarez in recent weeks, where shelters are full of people awaiting opportunities to enter the US or who have applied for asylum there and are awaiting trial.
More than 30 migrant shelters and other advocacy groups published an open letter on March 9, deploring the criminalization of migrants and asylum seekers in the city. She accused the authorities of abuse and the use of excessive force in detaining migrants and complained that the city police questioned people on the streets without reason about their immigration status.
The high level of frustration in Ciudad Juarez was illustrated earlier this month when hundreds of mostly Venezuelan migrants, based on false rumors that the United States would allow them entry into the country, tried to make their way across one of the international bridges to force to El Paso. US authorities blocked their attempts.
The national immigration service said on Tuesday that it “strongly denies the actions that led to this tragedy” with no further explanation as to what those actions may have been.
The agency has struggled with overcrowding in its facilities in recent years, as Mexico, under pressure from the US government, stepped up efforts to stem the flow of migrants to the US border. And the country’s immigration lockdowns have seen protests and riots from time to time.
Migrants, mostly Venezuelans, rioted at an immigration center in Tijuana in October, which had been placed under police and National Guard troops control. In November, dozens of migrants rioted at Mexico’s largest detention center in the southern city of Tapachula, near the border with Guatemala. No one died in either incident.
Mexico has become the world’s third most popular destination for asylum seekers, after the United States and Germany, but is still largely a transit country for those heading to the United States. It holds tens of thousands of migrants in an extensive network of detention centers and attempts to closely monitor movements across the country in cooperation with American authorities.
Karla Samayoa, spokeswoman for Guatemala’s foreign ministry, said Mexican authorities had told them more than two dozen of the migrants killed appeared to be from the country.
Asylum-seekers in Mexico must remain in the state where they apply, leading large numbers to hole up near the country’s southern border with Guatemala. Tens of thousands are also in border towns with the United States, including Ciudad Juárez.
Associated Press writer Sonia Pérez D. in Guatemala City contributed to this report.
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