A fire sparked by migrants protesting in a Mexico detention center killed at least 38 people, a government official says. Surveillance footage from inside the building shows guards walking away from the blaze and making no apparent attempt to release detainees.
Authorities said more than a dozen dead were from Central and South America Wednesday. The deaths come as the number of people seeking asylum in the United States has risen dramatically amid stricter border policies and increased violence at the US-Mexico frontier.
President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador blamed the migrants for starting the fire at the National Immigration Institute in Ciudad Juarez, across the Texas border. He said the migrants set a fire at the shelter in “resistance” to their deportation and did not anticipate it would lead to such a deadly event.
Several migrants, including a family of five, were found dead at the facility on Tuesday evening. The migrants from Venezuela had been staying at the facility since they arrived in Mexico last October and were waiting to be processed for asylum.
Hours after the fire broke out late Monday, rows of bodies were laid out under shimmery silver sheets outside the facility in Ciudad. Ambulances, firefighters, and vans from the morgue swarmed the scene.
Some migrant victims were covered in black soot, their bodies arranged next to each other in rows. Others were cradled in body bags and laid on the ground.
The migration agency said the dead included 68 men from Central and South America. The fire sparked out of the dormitory area, and the blaze did not spread to other parts of the facility.
Human rights organizations called on the Mexican government to address a “broken system” of refugee protection and the dangers migrants face when trying to enter the US. They said the blaze shed light on overcrowding and poor detention center conditions that have been highlighted in recent weeks as thousands of migrants have arrived at the US-Mexico border.
“Migrants in detention are deprived of adequate food and water and are subjected to cruel and inhumane treatment by the authorities, including forced confinement to tiny cells that are barely big enough for a bed,” said Rafael Velasquez, director of the International Rescue Committee’s office in Mexico.
More than 30 migrant shelters and advocacy groups issued an open letter on March 9 complaining about the criminalization of migrants in Ciudad Juarez, saying municipal police were questioning migrants in the streets without cause. The group said the migrants have been packing local shelters, which have been a tension source.
Tensions in Ciudad Juarez have been high recently, with many migrants reporting being stopped and questioned by municipal police, reported El Diario de Juarez. The newspaper reported that many migrants feared being deported back to their home countries because of violence in those nations and a surge of immigration from the US.