Mexico’s president vows not to cover up investigation into fire that killed 38 migrants

Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador has promised his government will thoroughly investigate a fire that killed at least 38 migrants at a detention center in this border town.

A security video circulating on social media appeared to show staff making no effort to help desperate inmates who remained locked behind bars Monday night as smoke billowed and flames spread. An inmate kicks the bars in an apparent attempt to force open the door.

“There is no intention to cover up what happened, no intention to protect anyone,” López Obrador told reporters at his daily press conference in Mexico City on Wednesday. “In our government we do not allow human rights violations or impunity.”

The President also assured people in the home countries of the deceased that the case was being investigated “to find out what really happened”.

News of the fire sparked panic in communities across Latin America as relatives of migrants rushed to the US to check on them.

Mexican authorities have added to the confusion by reporting the names of the dead and injured without specifying who belonged to which group. An original list released late Tuesday included 68 migrants, but an updated list included 66. All were men: 28 from Guatemala, 12 from Venezuela, 13 from Honduras, 12 from El Salvador and one from Colombia.

Of the victims who were hospitalized, 17 remained in critical condition, nine were classified as “sensitive” and two as stable, authorities said.

On Tuesday, the president said the fire started after migrants learned they would be deported to their home countries – and set mattresses on fire in protest.

But migrants and activists here say they want more details on the cause and why prison authorities were unable to douse the flames or free the prisoners locked behind bars.

It is also unclear whether the facility had a functioning fire alarm or sprinkler system.

“We’re all very frustrated, we don’t know what happened to our friends — those who survived, who died,” said Paola Aliendres, 29, a mother of two from Venezuela, who was among dozens of migrants moving forward The charred facility gathered here late Tuesday to protest the government’s handling of the case. “It seems like they want to blame us for everything.”

Mexican Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard said Tuesday the culprits had been identified and would be “presented” to federal prosecutors. He did not provide any information about their identity.

Even before the fire, there were tensions over immigration in Ciudad Juárez, a busy manufacturing hub across the Rio Grande from El Paso

Tens of thousands of migrants from across Latin America and the Caribbean have been stranded here and other Mexican border towns and cities in recent years as the US government pressured Mexico to prevent them from entering the United States.

It was not publicly known if any of the dead or injured had been turned away by US authorities under Title 42, a public health law invoked during the pandemic to stop tens of thousands of unauthorized frontier workers in recent years to be deported back to Mexico while being denied return opportunity to seek political asylum or other potential relief in the United States.

Migrants here accuse Mexican officials of harassing or needlessly arresting them, sometimes raiding hotels and hostels or detaining them on the streets where many sell jewelry, food and other items. Migrants not only face deportation, they said, but are often bussed south — sometimes as far as Mexico’s border with Guatemala, nearly 2,000 miles away — to thwart their efforts to enter the United States.

“They just come and take us for no reason,” said Aliendres, the Venezuelan mother. “We’re just trying to make a living and survive and hopefully someday fulfill our dream of coming to the United States.”

The migrant detention center, about 100 meters from the Rio Grande River that separates Mexico and the United States, is one of many across the country run by the Mexican government’s National Immigration Institute. Both federal employees and private contractors work at the center.

Migrants have long complained of abuse and overcrowding in federal prisons.

Monday’s fire was believed to be the deadliest incident to date at one of the facilities designed for the short-term detention of undocumented migrants.

It was the latest in a series of tragedies that have claimed the lives of hundreds of migrants in recent years.

In June, 53 people from Mexico and Central America died in a sweltering tractor trailer that was abandoned in San Antonio.

In December 2021, 55 migrants, mostly Guatemalans, were killed when the truck carrying them crashed in the southern Mexican state of Chiapas.

In 2010, authorities said, members of a Mexican drug cartel kidnapped and killed 72 migrants, mostly Central Americans, in the northern Mexican state of Tamaulipas. Officials say the migrants were killed after refusing to work for the criminal gang.

Special correspondent Gabriela Minjares in Ciudad Juárez and Cecilia Sánchez Vidal in Mexico City contributed to this report.

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