when Smoke billows from an immigrant detention center In the Mexican border city of Ciudad Juarez, Venezuelan immigrant Viangli Infante Padrón panicked because she knew her husband was still inside.
The father of three was picked up by immigration agents earlier in the day, part of a recent crackdown that detained 67 immigrants, many from the Rio Grande who were asking for handouts or car windows at stoplights in the city. El Paso, Texas.
In a moment of shock and panic, Infante Padrón described how he saw immigration agents exiting the building after the fire broke out late Monday night. Later came the bodies of migrants on stretchers, wrapped in foil blankets. The toll: 38 dead and 28 seriously injured, victims of a fire apparently set by inmates in protest.
Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador said the migrants started the fires in protest after learning they would be deported or removed.
“They never imagined that it would cause this terrible misfortune,” López Obrador said.
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Authorities initially reported 40 dead, but later said some confusion may have caused double counting. Twenty-eight people were injured and were in “critical-critical” condition, according to the National Immigration Institute, which runs the facility.
“I was desperate because I saw a dead body, a dead body, a dead body and I couldn’t see him anywhere,” Infante Padrón said of her husband, Eduardo Caraballo Lopez, who ultimately survived with only minor injuries, possibly because he was scheduled for release. And there was a door.
But what he saw in those first minutes has become central to a question for much of Mexico: Why didn’t authorities try to free the men — nearly all from Guatemala, Honduras, Venezuela and El Salvador — before the smoke filled the room and killed so many?
“There was smoke everywhere. The ones they let out were women and immigration workers,” Infante Padrón said. “The men, they never got them out until the firemen came.”
“They alone had the key,” said the Infante Padron. “It was their responsibility to open the prison door and save that life, whether the inmates were there, whether they escaped, regardless of what happened. They had to save that life.”
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Immigration authorities said they had released 15 women at the time of the fire but did not explain why no men were released.
Surveillance video leaked Tuesday shows migrants setting fire to foam mattresses in front of the bars of their detention cells.
In the video, later confirmed by the government, two men dressed as guards run into the camera frame and at least one migrant appears at the metal gate on the other side. But the guards don’t seem to make any effort to open the cell doors and instead quickly leave as a billowing cloud of smoke fills the structure within seconds.
“What humanity do we have in our lives? What humanity have we developed? Death, death, death,” thundered Bishop Mons. José Guadalupe Torres Campos at a mass commemorating immigrants.
Mexico’s National Immigration Institute said it was cooperating with the investigation. Guatemala has already said many of the dead are its nationals, but full identification of the dead and injured remains incomplete.
US authorities have offered to treat some of the 28 people in serious or critical condition, most apparently from smoke inhalation.
For many, the tragedy was the foreshadowing of a long series of decisions made by leaders in places like Venezuela and Central America, immigration policymakers in Mexico and the United States, directly to Ciudad Juárez residents complaining about the number of immigrants. For handouts on street corners.
“You see it,” more than 30 immigrant shelters and other advocacy organizations said in a statement Tuesday. “Mexico’s Immigration Policy Kills.”
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Those same advocacy organizations published an open letter on March 9 alleging the criminalization of immigrants and asylum seekers in Ciudad Juarez. It has accused migrants of abusing them and using excessive force to detain them, including allegations that municipal police question people on the street about their immigration status without reason.
López Obrador offered sympathy on Tuesday but held out little hope for change.
Immigration activist Irinio Mujica said the migrants feared being sent back, not necessarily to their country, but to southern Mexico, where they would have to cross the country again.
“When people get to the north, it’s like a ping-pong game — they send them back to the south,” Mujica said.
“We said that with the number of people they’re sending, the sheer number of people is creating a ticking time bomb,” Mujica said. “Today that time bomb went off.”
The migrants were stuck in Ciudad Juárez because US immigration policy does not allow them to cross the border to file asylum claims. But they were detained because residents of Ciudad Juarez grew tired of migrants blocking border crossings or demanding money.
The high level of frustration in Ciudad Juarez was evident earlier this month when hundreds of Venezuelan migrants tried to cross an international bridge to El Paso, acting on false rumors that the United States would allow them into the country. US authorities blocked their efforts.
After that, the mayor of Ciudad Juarez, Cruz Pérez Cuellar, started a campaign to inform the migrants that there was room in the shelters and that there was no need to beg on the streets. He urged residents not to give their money and said authorities would remove them from intersections where begging was dangerous and residents saw it as a nuisance.
For the migrants, the fire is another tragedy in a long line of tears.
About 100 migrants gathered outside the gates of the immigration facility on Tuesday to demand information about relatives. In many cases, they asked the same questions Mexico was asking itself.
Katyusha Marquez, a 23-year-old Venezuelan woman, was looking for her two children, ages 2 and 4, along with her half-brother Orlando Maldonado, who was traveling with her.
“We want to know if he is alive or dead,” she said. He wondered how all the guards inside made it out alive and only the immigrants died. “How could they not get them out?”