Deaths in Ciudad Juárez detention center fire lay bare the harsh reality of migration crisis

The blaze at a Mexican government immigration facility left 38 people dead and 28 more seriously injured, the worst such tragedy in living memory

Ciudad Juarez
Authorities with some of the bodies of the migrants who died in the fire in Ciudad Juárez.JOSE LUIS GONZALEZ (REUTERS)
Pablo Ferri

The deaths of dozens of migrants at a detention center in Ciudad Juárez, on the Mexico-U.S. border, has brought the migratory crisis into sharper focus. The facility, run by the Mexican National Institute of Migration (INM), has been overcrowded for several years and was engulfed in a fire on Tuesday that has taken the horrors and hardships facing would-be migrants into the United States to a new level. The authorities have placed the death toll at 38 people with 28 more seriously injured, all of them men, in what is the worst tragedy ever to have occurred at a federal immigration center. In its aftermath, questions are being asked about the actions of immigration agents tasked with their care. A video that circulated on social media on Tuesday showed guards fleeing the building and leaving the men locked up while smoke and flames erupted.

The terror and desperation on display in the video contrast with the initial reactions of the Mexican government. President Andrés Manuel López Obrador said Tuesday that the migrants had learned they were going to be deported and had set mattresses alight in protest. Some of the 68 men had been detained the previous afternoon in Ciudad Juárez amid a recent crackdown on migrants in the city. Others were returning from the United States, according to local media reports.

What remains unanswered is why the detainees were locked in cells and why the guards did not let them out when the fire started. International organizations have condemned the lack of response from the immigration agents at the center. The United Nations has demanded a “thorough” investigation. Others have been more critical, such as the NGO Refugees International.“The INM has a long history of the abuse of migrants in Mexico, and greater accountability for those abuses could have prevented this tragedy,” said Rachel Schmidtke, the NGO’s senior lawyer for the region.

Incendio en el INM
Firefighters work to get migrants out during the fire in Ciudad Juárez.JOSE LUIS GONZALEZ (REUTERS)

Latin America is experiencing an unprecedented migratory crisis, fueled by violence, hunger, lack of opportunity, climate change and political and economic factors. Over the past five years, hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans, Haitians, Nicaraguans, Hondurans, and Guatemalans, among many other nationalities, have crossed jungles and deserts in an attempt to forge a new life in the U.S. or Canada. Many have died on the journey, victims of organized crime and the networks of traffickers and facilitators who exploit the exodus. Now, the authorities have failed them as well.

The problem is a long-standing one. The administrations of Donald Trump and Joe Biden have both entrusted Mexico with a role in U.S. immigration policy, which consists of stopping new arrivals before they cross the border. Mexico has performed this task with considerable effectiveness. Over the past two years record numbers of migrant detentions have been recorded: 228,115 in 2021 and 444,439 in 2022. North of the Rio Grande, the U.S. government has been closing routes to migrants, including those for political or humanitarian asylum. Title 42 — legislation enacted in 2020 under Trump that closed U.S. borders to prevent the spread of coronavirus — remains in place under the Biden administration and continues to be used to prevent migrants from seeking international protection, with very few exceptions, despite the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) announcing in May 2022 that it was no longer required for pandemic containment.

In Mexico, little has changed in recent years. López Obrador assumed the presidency in December 2018 with a humanist, cross-cutting discourse, which soon found itself at odds with Trump’s rhetoric over the construction of a border wall. A barrier that, the Republican president added, he would make Mexico pay for. The battle of wills went back and forth, with López Obrador stating that Mexico would do no such thing. However, Mexico has created its own wall through the INM, which is supported in its role by the Mexican National Guard, created in 2019 under the López Obrador administration.

Incendio INM en Ciudad Juárez
People demonstrate outside the INM detention center in Ciudad Juárez, March 28.JOSE LUIS GONZALEZ (REUTERS)

However, the INM’s broad mandate to monitor and detain migrants has failed to prevent the flow. Instead, it has served to hide it, pushing it even further toward the margins. Tragedies have occurred before the Ciudad Juárez fire. In December 2021, a truck full of migrants crashed in Chiapas, southern Mexico, leaving a terrible toll: 54 dead and more than 100 injured. Earlier the same year, in February, a group of 17 migrants passing through Tamaulipas, a border region in Mexico’s northeast, encountered a group of police officers who, for reasons that remain unclear, riddled them with bullets. They then set fire to their bodies.

But the Ciudad Juárez is of a different dimension because there, the migrants were under the charge of the Mexican government. The INM, which is nominally dependent on the Secretariat of the Interior, manages the immigration center at the Stanton-Lerdo International Bridge, located a few hundred meters from the U.S. border. Its agents are responsible for the facility and those who are inside it. The center has said that it will cooperate with the investigation, which is being carried out by the Mexican Public Prosecutor’s Office (FGR).

It remains to be seen how the Mexican government will respond to the tragedy: whether it treats it is a one-off error, blames individual agents for failing to follow protocols, or points the finger at the system as a whole. On Tuesday, Secretary of Foreign Affairs Marcelo Ebrard provided some indication of what the fallout might be. On social media, he said that “those directly responsible for the events have been presented before the FGR,” without giving further details. On the other hand, some pro-government media outlets have reported that the Attorney General’s Office, which insists responsibility for the fire rests with the migrants, has made progress on its own investigation.

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