Tragedy struck on Monday evening at a migrant detention center in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, as a fire broke out, killing at least 38 people. Mexico’s National Migration Institute revised the death toll from 40 to 38 on Tuesday, after visiting the hospitals where victims were being treated. The majority of the migrants at the facility were from Central America and Venezuela.
Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador reported that the fire began at around 9:30 p.m. local time when migrants set fire to mattresses in protest against deportation. A video, purportedly from security footage within the center, shows a flame in part of a cell which is filling up with smoke as men kick desperately on the bars of a locked door.
Three people in what appear to be official uniforms walk past but make no attempt to open the door. By the end of the video, the smoke is so thick the cell can no longer be seen. Reuters was unable to independently verify the video.
The migration institute stated it was providing assistance to 15 women who had been safely evacuated from the center when the fire started. Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard confirmed that those “directly responsible” had been turned over to the Attorney General’s office, which is investigating the incident.
The tragedy has reignited concerns over the poor conditions and overcrowding in Mexico’s migrant detention centers. Activists have long flagged these issues as migration has increased. Gretchen Kuhner, director of the Mexico-based Institute for Women in Migration, which supports migrant rights, stated that “last night’s events are a horrible example of why organizations have been working to limit or eliminate detention in Mexico.”
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 3,000.
The fire was a tragic reminder of the dangers and hardships that migrants face on their journeys in search of a better life. One family’s story exemplifies the difficulties that many migrants encounter. 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. However, they were immediately returned to Mexico, where they then headed by bus to Ciudad Juarez.