On the night of Monday, March 27th, a fire broke out in a government-operated migrant detention center in the city of Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, resulting in the deaths of 38 men. According to the National Migration Institute (INM), the fire started in an accommodation area around 10 p.m. local time.
According to the INM, a group of migrants in the accommodation area were unhappy about the news that they were facing deportation. The Los Angeles Times shared a slightly different account by reporting that a Mexican official claimed the protests started due to some migrants being overcrowded in an accommodation area in which they were not being given water. Reports say the fire was started by migrants who were protesting.
The protesting migrants subsequently set mattresses on fire to show their displeasure. Mexican authorities confirmed that the deceased and injured were migrants from Guatemala, Honduras, Venezuela, El Salvador, Colombia, and Ecuador. The Guatemalan foreign minister confirmed that 28 Guatemalans had tragically died in the fire. Video footage and pictures from the scene of the fire show a sad picture of dead bodies lined up. Survivors of the fire are wrapped in thermal blankets with some placed on stretchers and transported to hospitals.
A woman who was present at the scene of the fire claimed that the dead people lost their lives due to the actions of the Mexican officials. She claimed the detention center was locked with people inside. “At 10 p.m., we started to see smoke billowing from everywhere, everybody ran away but they left the men locked in. Everybody was removed from the area, but they left the men locked in. They never opened the door,” the witness told Reuters. There were also allegations from witnesses that the detention center’s guards walked away from the fire without making an attempt to rescue the people trapped by it.
Mexico’s President Andrés Manuel López Obrador confirmed reports that the people in the migrant center were unhappy and demonstrated against imminent deportation. President Lopez Obrador called the incident sad.
“What we know so far is that migrants from Central America and some from Venezuela were in that shelter. We still do not know exactly the names and nationalities of those who unfortunately lost their lives,” President Obrador said.
“This had to do with a protest that they started after, we assume, they found out that they were going to be deported, and as a protest, they put mattresses from the shelter at the door of the shelter, and they set fire to them and they did not imagine that this was going to cause this terrible accident.”
Ciudad Juarez is very close to the Mexico-U.S. border, directly opposite the city of El Paso. The Mexican city has become a haven for migrants coming from Central and South America as it is directly along the often traveled road to the U.S. According to the newspaper El Universal, Mexican immigration officials had spent time that March 27 afternoon rounding up migrants who had been begging on the streets of Ciudad Juarez. It is believed that some of those people who were rounded up were taken to the detention center.
The fire at the detention center was one of the worst disasters to occur in Mexico. It further highlights the challenges that migrants traveling from and in that region face. Advocates have called for more to be done.
“As Mexico receives historic numbers of new asylum claims and the U.S. continues to implement policies that push asylum seekers back into Mexico, humanitarian infrastructure in the country is increasingly strained, and more people are stuck in highly vulnerable situations,” the International Rescue Committee said in a statement. “These risks are particularly tangible in cities along the U.S.-Mexico border, such as Ciudad Juárez, which for years have seen increasing numbers of displaced people as new and stricter border policies have been put in place.”