CIUDAD JUÁREZ, Mexico — A fire at a migrant detention facility just south of the U.S. border killed at least 38 people, who appeared to be trapped in locked cells as flames spread Monday night and guards left the scene. It was one of the deadliest tragedies in years involving foreigners apprehended while trying to reach the United States.
Mexico’s National Migration Institute said the blaze started shortly before 10 p.m. Monday in the men’s detention area of its office in Ciudad Juárez, across the border from El Paso. Sixty-eight men were staying in that part of the one-story building, according to the government-run institute.
In a Tuesday morning news conference, President Andrés Manuel López Obrador said the fire was apparently sparked during a protest by migrants who had learned they were going to be deported. “In the door of the shelter they put some mattresses and set them on fire,” he said. “They never imagined that would cause this tragedy.”
But hours later, security-camera footage began to circulate in Mexican media showing at least two guards walking past a large cell that was on fire. One prisoner tried desperately to kick open a locked door, but the guards ignored him. In less than 30 seconds, nothing is visible through the thick smoke.
Mexico’s government minister, Adán Augusto López, told TV journalist Joaquín López-Dóriga that the government had obtained the video before dawn. “I condemn this sort of conduct,” he said.
The Mexican Attorney General’s Office said the list of dead and injured included 28 Guatemalans, 13 Hondurans, 12 Salvadorans, 12 Venezuelans and one citizen each from Colombia and Ecuador. No specific breakdown was provided of those who perished, and the institute’s revised toll Tuesday night was slightly lower than the 40 deaths it had previously reported.
Firefighters and military personnel had swarmed the site, near the Stanton-Lerdo International Bridge, after the blaze began. Rescue workers laid the victims’ bodies in rows outside the facility, covering them with foil thermal sheets.
“This one’s alive! This one’s alive!” emergency workers shouted as they spotted movement on one body, according to the local news outlet Diario de Juárez. Video shot by news outlet Norte Digital showed one woman with a baby weeping and pounding on the door of an ambulance that hadn’t yet left the site. “Pedro! Pedro!” she cried.
According to a Mexican official familiar with the facility, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue, the building holds both migrants who have been detained on their journey through the country and people expelled by the U.S. Border Patrol under Title 42. That pandemic-era policy allows swift removal without the opportunity to ask for asylum; the official said it was not clear whether any of the fire victims had been sent back across the border by U.S. agents.
A statement Tuesday from U.S. Customs and Border Protection said it was allowing those who were injured to be “transported via ambulance from Mexican to U.S. medical facilities for treatment.”
The stark images of the disaster highlighted the suffering of migrants who endure kidnapping, extortion and heartbreak as they try to reach the United States. “Those who blame the victims of the fire obscure the fact these deaths are an indictment of the policies and structures implemented at large by both governments,” the nonprofit Hope Border Institute noted in a statement.
By midmorning Tuesday, a small shrine of flowers and white candles had been created along a wall of the cream-colored facility. Nearly three dozen migrants, mostly from Venezuela, protested outside a perimeter fence about the lack of information about their relatives and friends. “Justicia!” they yelled.
Stefania Arango, 25, of Maracaibo, Venezuela, said she had arrived in the city two weeks ago with her 32-year-old brother, Stefan. He was detained Monday during a sweep by immigration authorities of downtown areas where migrants had been begging, selling candy and washing windshields. Arango said Mexican authorities confirmed several hours later that he was being held in the immigration facility.
Yet she knew nothing Tuesday about his fate. “I have my heart broken into two pieces,” she said. “I’m afraid that he’s dead.”
Another Venezuelan migrant, Katiusca Márquez, 23, was also seeking news about a brother. Both had been detained Monday afternoon, though authorities let her go because she had her young son with her. Her sibling, José Orlando, 30, was not so lucky.
“We crossed the jungle in several countries and we’ve survived everything,” she said. “And nothing has happened up until today.”
An investigation into the cause of the blaze is underway. The migration institute said it “energetically rejects the acts that led to this tragedy,” without providing details.
Migrant apprehensions at the U.S. border have spiked to record levels in the past two years, and U.S. officials have warned that those who cross without permission could be quickly returned to Mexico or to their homelands.
The Biden administration is working with Mexico to roll out new border restrictions in the coming weeks that would discourage migrants from making illegal crossings into Mexico and then into the United States. U.S. officials say they will accept tens of thousands of migrants from Venezuela, Cuba, Haiti and Nicaragua as long as they apply online to enter legally.
The administration has also proposed a temporary rule that would make it more difficult for migrants to cross the border and immediately request asylum in the United States, an idea that has drawn criticism from advocacy groups and some leading Democrats.
The Rev. Francisco Javier Calvillo, director of a migrant shelter in Ciudad Juárez, said the city was struggling to keep up with the surge of U.S.-bound foreigners who have arrived since 2018. The number of shelters has jumped from three to 40, he said, and “migration authorities are overwhelmed. The federal government has done nothing.”
Protests are not uncommon at Mexico’s migrant detention facilities, which are often overcrowded. In October, migrants rioted at a detention center in the border city of Tijuana. The following month, a riot erupted in a large detention center in the southern city of Tapachula. No one died in either incident.
Rafael Velásquez, country director for the International Rescue Committee in Mexico, called the fire in Ciudad Juárez “devastating.” His statement said the tragedy “is proof of the extremely urgent need to ensure that there are systems in place to provide safety for people in need of international protection.”
Sheridan reported from Mexico City and Suliman from London. Maria Sacchetti in Washington and Gabriela Martinez in Mexico City contributed to this report.