Dozens dead, injured in border fire at Mexico migrant detention center near US border

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JUAREZ, Mexico – A fire in a dormitory at a Mexican immigration detention center in Juárez left dozens of migrants dead, a government agency said Tuesday, in one of the deadliest incidents ever at an immigration lockup in the country.

Hours after the fire broke out late Monday, rows of bodies were laid out under shimmery silver sheets outside the facility in Juárez, a major crossing point for migrants. Ambulances, firefighters and vans from the morgue swarmed the scene.

Mexico's National Immigration Institute reported at least 39 people died and 29 were injured and are in "delicate-serious" condition. There were 68 men from Central and South America held in the facility at the time of the fire, the agency said.

Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador at his morning news conference in Mexico City said the fire was started by migrants at the center during a protest after learning some of them would be deported.

The migrants stacked mats up against a door and set them on fire not knowing it "would cause this terrible disgrace," López Obrador said.

A migrant is rushed to the hospital after a fire broke out at a Mexican immigration detention center in Juarez on Monday, March 27, 2023.
A migrant is rushed to the hospital after a fire broke out at a Mexican immigration detention center in Juarez on Monday, March 27, 2023.


On Tuesday morning, the charred exit of the National Migration Insitute building was all that remained visible of the fire. Mexican National Guard soldiers stood watch as morning cross-border commuter traffic continued over the nearby Stanton Street bridge to El Paso.

A group of Venezuelan men gathered across the street.

Daniel Silva, of Venezuela, said he has spent four weeks in Juárez with his wife and children trying to get an appointment through the CBP One app to enter the U.S. without luck. He has been selling coffee on street corners to make ends meet.

He said he didn't believe the official version of events, that officials couldn't put out a fire started by the migrants themselves.

"Why would they leave a jail alone? They can't leave detained people alone," he said.

It was the deadliest incident inside a Mexican immigration facility in recent memory. Authorities are investigating the cause of the fire and the governmental National Human Rights Commission had been called in to help the migrants.

Immigration center fire in Juárez: 'a horrifying indictment'

Tensions between authorities and migrants had apparently been running high in recent weeks in Juárez, where shelters are full of people waiting for opportunities to cross into the U.S. or who have requested asylum there and are waiting out the process.

More than 30 migrant shelters and other advocacy organizations published an open letter March 9 that complained of a criminalization of migrants and asylum-seekers in the city. It accused authorities of abuse and using excessive force in rounding up migrants, complaining that municipal police were questioning people in the street about their immigration status without cause.

The high level of frustration in Juárez was evident earlier this month when hundreds of mostly Venezuelan migrants acting on false rumors that the United States would allow them to enter the country tried to force their way across one of the international bridges to El Paso. U.S. authorities blocked their attempts.

"The 39 lives lost last night in Ciudad Juárez are a horrifying indictment. The systems of enforcement that we have erected to patrol people who migrate are steel hands in velvet gloves, and death is part of the overhead. We are all responsible,” tweeted Dylan Corbett, executive director of the Hope Border Institute, a faith-based El Paso-Juárez border issues community group.

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Mexico's national immigration agency said Tuesday that it "energetically rejects the actions that led to this tragedy" without any further explanation of what those actions might have been.

In recent years, as Mexico has stepped up efforts to stem the flow migration to the U.S. border under pressure from the American government, the agency has struggled with overcrowding in its facilities. And the country's immigration lockups have seen protests and riots from time to time.

Mostly Venezuelan migrants rioted inside an immigration center in Tijuana in October that had to be controlled by police and National Guard troops. In November, dozens of migrants rioted in Mexico's largest detention center in the southern city of Tapachula near the border with Guatemala. No one died in either incident.

The National Migration Institute said the fire broke out around 10 p.m. Monday.

The migration institute said Mexican authorities were contacting the consulates of different countries to begin the process of identifying the dead.

This is a breaking news story that will be updated as more information becomes available. The Associated Press contributed to this story.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Juárez fire: Dozens dead at Mexico migrant detention center building