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Migrant detention center fire leaves 40 dead in Juárez

President López Obrador and some shelter operators said the migrants themselves started the fire in protest of the conditions there, but others blame poor management on the part of immigration authorities.

MEXICO CITY (CN) — A fire at a temporary migrant detention center run by the Mexican government in the border city of Ciudad Juárez Monday night left at least 40 people dead, according to immigration authorities. 

All of the victims were migrants from countries other than Mexico, the National Institute of Migration (INM) said in a press release. It has filed a complaint with the corresponding authorities demanding a thorough investigation into the incident. 

A total of 68 senior men from Central and South America lived in the shelter at the time of the incident. In addition to the dead, 29 were wounded and sent to four local hospitals for treatment. 

The INM did not disclose the cause of the fire, but President Andrés Manuel López Obrador said at his morning press conference that the migrants themselves started the fire to protest being held in the facility against their will. 

The INM did not respond to a request for confirmation of the president’s statement. 

“The INM is old and crumbling,” said Javier Calvillo, a priest who runs a migrant shelter in the city. He called out the institution for having carried out raids to round up migrants the day of the fire. “What were they thinking doing these raids and putting all these people in these facilities?”

While other clergymen who operate migrant shelters in Juárez told Courthouse News that they suspect that the president’s allegation is true, Calvillo was not buying it. 

“If you’re locked up with chains on the doors and several other men in the room, would you light a fire?” he asked. “I wouldn’t. How am I going to get out? Reasoning humanely, it’s hard for me to believe that the migrants did this.”

A migrant shelter run by the Mexican government in Ciudad Juárez — but not the scene of Monday's deadly fire — is seen through the bars of the perimeter fence. Migrants and advocates describe prison-like conditions in shelters operated by the government in Juárez. (Cody Copeland/Courthouse News)

Government-run shelters in Juárez are notorious for keeping migrants in prison-like conditions. They are not allowed to leave the premises or even to cook for themselves and their families. Many migrants have told Courthouse News on previous reporting trips that they prefer to stay on the streets than go into shelters operated by the INM. 

Calvillo described a situation that has gone beyond out of control. Several times in recent weeks, groups of migrants have entered the cathedral in downtown Juárez in search of sanctuary, only to be forcibly removed by authorities. 

Thus, to him, all signs point to poor management of the situation by authorities, and not a fire started intentionally by the migrants themselves.

“That may be the government’s position, many other people's position, but for me, for us as a church, considering the background here, no, that could not have been what happened,” he said. “We must request a full investigation to get to the reality of the situation.”

Immigration advocates have long decried U.S. and Mexican policies that force migrants to remain in dangerous areas along the border, saying that they only generate a migrant crisis in cities like Juárez and ultimately lead to tragedies like Monday night's fire.

In January 2022, Aaron Reichlin-Melnick of the American Immigration Council called the situation on the border the "calm before the storm."

While it may be too soon to be able to call the fire a direct result of policy, Reichlin-Melnick said that "certainly some kind of tragedy was sadly inevitable, given how tensions have been rising."

Courthouse News correspondent Cody Copeland is based in Mexico City.

Correction: An earlier version of this article called the detention center a migrant shelter.

Categories: International

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