Fatal fire, damning video put harsh focus on Mexico’s migrant centers
The security video that went viral on Tuesday showed guards abandoning a government-run detention center on the U.S.-Mexico border, as flames swept through a large, locked cell filled with 68 men. Thirty-nine of them died in the disaster Monday night in Ciudad Juárez, across from El Paso.
The video has caused an uproar in Mexico, with the opposition, Catholic Church leaders, human rights groups and even government allies demanding an end to such abuses. Pope Francis called Wednesday for prayers for the victims.
On Wednesday evening, authorities announced that they had issued arrest warrants for four suspects in the case — two immigration officers, a private security guard and a migrant who allegedly started the fatal blaze. The investigation is focused on potential charges of homicide, property damage and abuse of authority, a senior prosecutor, Sara Irene Herrerias, told reporters.
“There will be no attempt to hide the facts,” President Andrés Manuel López Obrador has pledged.
Yet as Mexicans demand answers from their government, the scandal has also put a spotlight on decisions by the Trump and Biden administrations to increasingly pressure Mexico to stop the growing number of U.S.-bound migrants.
“This is a huge tragedy and a reminder of the failure of both U.S. and Mexican migration policy,” said Savitri Arvey, a senior policy adviser at the Women’s Refugee Commission in Washington.
Mexico apprehended nearly 450,000 migrants in 2022, more than triple the number in 2018 and a sign of the increasing flow of people from countries beset by entrenched poverty and violence. Sophisticated smuggling networks and the connectivity offered by smartphones are also spurring the exodus.
Mexico has one of the largest immigration detention systems in the world, with 6,000 staff and around 66 centers for those apprehended, according to Tyler Mattiace, a Latin America investigator for Human Rights Watch. But he noted that many of those are temporary holding facilities or retrofitted offices or buildings with little infrastructure — and overcrowding is a common problem. A citizens’ council that advises the government’s National Migration Institute issued a statement Tuesday describing “deplorable” conditions at the facilities.
“They operate like prisons,” the statement charged — though illegal migration is an administrative offense in Mexico, not a crime.
The facility in Ciudad Juárez is among them. The men’s ward was a large cell with white bars and a locked door, according to immigrant activists who have visited the center. Detainees there slept on mattresses on the floor, covered by foil emergency blankets, said Alejandra Corona, coordinator of services for the Jesuit Refugee Service in the city. “At times there isn’t enough food,” she said. “And the quality isn’t the best.”
But the biggest problem Monday night appeared to be the guards’ negligence. The video showed several walking past the cell and the individuals locked inside even as flames spread. Immigration officials said 15 female prisoners in a separate part of the facility were not locked in cells and escaped.
López Obrador had initially blamed the tragedy on the migrants, saying they set their mattresses ablaze to protest their impending deportation. Such demonstrations have previously occurred in other migration detention facilities. Following the video’s release, he promised a thorough investigation.
Mexico has played a growing role in hosting and intercepting migrants since early in Donald Trump’s presidency. Yet its budget for immigration enforcement and a growing number of asylum applicants has lagged.
In 2018, Trump negotiated an accord called the Migration Protection Protocols, in which Mexico agreed to host U.S. asylum applicants from several countries. The following year, Mexico deployed its new national guard to detain migrants after Trump threatened to impose tariffs to force the country to curb the swelling number of migrants. Then, in 2020, as the coronavirus pandemic took off, Trump began using a health law called Title 42 to quickly expel migrants before they could request asylum.
Biden has sought to end those programs but has been blocked by the courts. More recently, faced with historic numbers of migrants and asylum seekers reaching the border, he also urged Mexico to intensify enforcement.
Growing crowds of migrants are stuck in border cities like Ciudad Juárez, where shelters have multiplied — and rapidly filled. Alarmed by how many foreigners are sleeping in the streets, and begging for food and money, city officials have worked with immigration authorities to round up migrants.
“Here, the problem is, there’s an agreement between Mexico and the U.S., in which the Mexican government has accepted people being returned through Title 42,” said Blanca Navarrete, head of the Fundamental Human Rights in Action group in Juarez. “But the same government doesn’t provide funds to give humanitarian help to the people who were expelled.”
Gabriela Martinez contributed to this report.