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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Families of Guatemalans killed in migrant center fire bury their dead

Relatives and friends during the wake in honor of Gaspar Josué Cuc Tziquín, one of the Guatemalan migrants who died in a fire at a migration center in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, in Chicacao, a predominantly Indigenous community in southwest Guatemala, on April 12, 2023.

By Daniele Volpe and Elda Cantú

Last week, the remains of 17 Guatemalan men killed in a fire at a migration center near the U.S. border were flown back home, where three days of national mourning have been declared. They were among 40 people who died in March at the migration center in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, near the border with Texas.

It is not the first time the Guatemalan president has had occasion to declare such a period of mourning. He has done so at least twice before: in December 2021, when at least 40 Guatemalans died in a vehicular crash in Chiapas, Mexico, and in March of that same year, when more than a dozen migrants were shot and burned in Tamaulipas, Mexico.

So far this year, Guatemalan authorities have helped repatriate 58 dead nationals. In 2022, they brought back 427 people, 361 of whom had died in the United States. Many had been migrants trying to cross the U.S. border.

Mexico has detained five people in connection with the fire in March. The prosecutor’s office is also expected to press criminal charges against the leader of the National Institute of Migration.

Francisco Gaspar Rojche Chiquival, 24, and Miguel Rojché Zapalu, 40, were two of the men laid to rest in Chicacao, a predominantly Indigenous community in southwest Guatemala. They were uncle and nephew and had left for the United States on March 19.

Two of Rojché Zapalu’s daughters attended his wake.

Their relatives said they had taken out loans to cover payments to the coyotes — human traffickers — who demanded around $15,000 to $19,000 for each migrant. The men had been detained near the U.S. border and were expected to be deported back to Guatemala.

“He didn’t think he’d be back in a coffin,” said Rosa Elvira Chiquival, 37, Rojché Zapalu’s widow.

She recalled the family going out to hug him the morning he left. She has six children, ages 3 to 15. “He said, ‘I have to go for you, to get ahead.’”

“The president of Mexico has to look for the people responsible,” Aurelia Gutiérrez, 50, a relative of Rojche Chiquival, said while a funeral band played. “They’re not thieves. They look for a way to support the family because everything in Guatemala is expensive.”

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