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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Mexico investigates migrant deaths in border city fire as homicide case

Local residents and migrants gather outside a migration detention facility in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, where dozens were killed in a fire on Tuesday night, on Wednesday, March 29, 2023.

By Simon Romero, Natalie Kitroeff and Eileen Sullivan

Mexican officials earlier this week announced that they were investigating a fire at a migrant detention center in Ciudad Juárez as a homicide case, saying that government workers and private security employees had not allowed detainees to escape from the blaze that killed at least 39 people.

Authorities, in a news conference, said they had identified eight suspects, including federal and state agents, and would issue four arrest warrants Wednesday.

“None of the public servants, nor the private security guards, took any action to open the door for the migrants who were inside where the fire was,” said Sara Irene Herrerías Guerra, a top federal human rights prosecutor.

The announcement came after a video emerged appearing to show that the migrants had been trapped when the fire broke out Monday. Uniformed figures at the center can be seen walking away from the blaze while people remain behind bars as the area fills with smoke.

Authorities said they might also investigate one migrant suspected of starting the fire.

“Our country’s immigration policy is one of respect for human rights,” said Rosa Icela Rodríguez, the government’s secretary of security. “This unfortunate event, which is the responsibility of public servants and guards who have been identified, is not the policy of our country.”

It was a striking development in a case that has drawn intense scrutiny to the Mexican government’s handling of the surge of migrants flowing into the country over the past year, seeking to enter the United States.

Ciudad Juárez, just across the border from El Paso, Texas, has long prided itself on absorbing waves of newcomers, many from Mexico who come to work in factories and others from across Latin America who stop on their way to the United States.

But what used to be a transit point for U.S.-bound migrants has turned into a hub for those who believe they have no choice but to stay — either after being sent back by U.S. authorities or while waiting to apply to enter legally.

At intersections across the city, groups of migrants can be seen asking for money. Some hold up cardboard signs pleading for help. Others sell food out of coolers.

Many sleep in abandoned construction sites or anywhere else they can find on the streets in this Mexican city, draped in blankets and ragged sleeping bags.

“Help us eat and to not sleep in the street,” read a sign held by Vicleikis Muñoz, 20, a Venezuelan woman in downtown Juárez who was eight months pregnant and traveling with her two children, 5 and 3.

“We survive from asking for money,” she said Wednesday. “I don’t know how much longer I can do this.”

Migrants have tried to cross the border en masse, a move that has frustrated many residents who legally cross daily into El Paso to work. The mayor of Ciudad Juárez vowed a crackdown, while rights groups denounced abuses by authorities.

Those simmering tensions came into sharp relief Monday night, when the fire burned through the detention center, which is federally operated. The Mexican president said migrants had started the blaze during a protest, suggesting they were angry because they had found out they would be deported.

Viangly Infante Padrón, a Venezuelan migrant who has been in Ciudad Juárez since December, said authorities picked up her husband Monday afternoon and took him to the detention center.

She went there that day to try to get him out, and waited inside until about 9:30 p.m., when she heard a commotion coming from where she believed the men were being held.

“I heard kicks and screams,” Infante Padrón said in an interview, adding that she heard one migration official say, “Take the women out.” Before she was whisked outside, she begged officials to free the men.

“I started crying and I said: ‘How is it that they’re burning? Why are you not opening the door?’” Infante Padrón said. “They never opened the door for him, nothing.” She said she waited outside for 15 minutes before firefighters arrived and started removing bodies. Her husband, she said, is now in the hospital.

Standing outside a local school Wednesday, the mayor of Ciudad Juárez, Cruz Pérez Cuéllar, defended the city government’s treatment of migrants.

“We are being called xenophobic and racist,” he said. “This is a completely open government, and there is no xenophobia on our part. We are a city of migrants.”

Analysts said a turning point for Ciudad Juárez came after President Joe Biden, facing relentless Republican attacks over the surge in migration over the summer, announced a new policy intended to curb the record levels of illegal border crossings.

U.S. border officials had been seeing an explosion in crossings by Venezuelans, who could not be deported by U.S. authorities because of strained relations with Venezuela.

In October, the Biden administration struck a deal with Mexico intended to blunt the influx: The United States could expel Venezuelans to Mexico in exchange for creating legal pathways for them to pass into the United States.

The number of Venezuelans crossing the border illegally dropped within days. The Biden administration saw this as so successful that it negotiated another deal with Mexico to expand the agreement to include Cubans, Haitians and Nicaraguans — populations who similarly could not be easily expelled to their home countries.

But Ciudad Juárez soon started to see larger numbers of Venezuelans and others gathering in the streets, residents and analysts say. Many were in limbo — it was futile to try to cross into the United States because of the new policy, but they did not want to go home.

So they stayed.

The strain in Ciudad Juárez has been mirrored across the north of Mexico, current and former officials say, as the Biden administration has made changes in its border policies.

“We do not have the capabilities to deal with this amount of migrants,” said Martha Bárcena, who was the Mexican ambassador to the United States from December 2018 to February 2021.

The fire, Bárcena added, “should make Mexico and the U.S. aware that the measures that have been agreed on are not working and they are causing terrible tragedies.”

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