Mexico president assigns blame elsewhere for migrant tragedy

Eager to gain favor with the United States, President Andrés Manuel López Obrador has made life hard for migrants seeking to cross Mexico to reach the U.S. border

South American and Central American migrants waiting outside the National Migration Institute
Dozens of South and Central American migrants wait outside the National Migration Institute for reports of the 29 migrants injured and 39 killed during last Monday's fire on March 30, 2023.Nayeli Cruz

Mexico’s president on Friday visited hospitals treating injured migrants in the border city of Ciudad Juárez, where 39 men died in an immigration detention center fire late Monday. President Andrés Manuel López Obrador said he was personally devastated by Monday’s tragedy. But it appears he will bring little new with him in the way of immigration policy during Friday’s visit to Ciudad Juárez, across from El Paso, Texas.

“I confess it hurt me a lot, it damaged me,” López Obrador said before the trip. “It ripped my soul apart.” The president said the Ciudad Juárez fire was the second most painful moment of his administration, exceeded only by a 2019 pipeline fire in the central Mexico town of Tlahuelilpan that killed about 135 people.

However, it hasn’t cost him much politically.

Many residents of Mexican border cities mourned the death of the migrants in the smoky mattress fire, set by some migrants to protest perceived moves to deport them. But in Ciudad Juárez, many residents were fed up with migrants largely from Central America and Venezuela begging for change at street corners and blocking border bridges.

Eager to gain favor with the United States, López Obrador has made life hard for migrants seeking to cross Mexico to reach the U.S. border. He has assigned tens of thousands of army troops and National Guard officers to retain migrants, and allowed the United States to return migrants from Venezuela, Honduras, Nicaragua and Cuba to Mexico.

But the U.S. has contributed little to helping Mexico shelter or integrate the returned migrants.

López Obrador lashed out Friday, saying the United States should be spending more on economic development in Latin America to prevent migrants from leaving their homes, rather than sending military aid to Ukraine. He suggested the U.S. should provide direct cash support payments to families in the region.

“How can you compare what the U.S. government send to Central America, with the $30, $35 billion it is spending on buying weapons for Ukraine?” López Obrador said.

That impasse — with federal governments in Mexico and the United States loathe to touch the migration issue — often leaves the situation up to local leaders, many of whose constituents view the migrants as a nuisance.

López Obrador said Friday he was going to set up a commission to ensure the human rights of migrants are protected. He said the commission would be headed by longtime migrant activist and Roman Catholic priest Rev. Alejandro Solalinde. But it was unclear what powers the commission would have.

In the meantime, López Obrador said “I will concentrate on the medical side, basically. What matters to me is treatment for the injured.” Mexico has turned down a U.S. offer to help provide medial treatment to the injured, most of whom suffered smoke inhalation, saying they were too ill to move.

Federal Public Safety Secretary Rosa Icela Rodríguez said Thursday that 27 migrants remained hospitalized, all of them in either serious or critical condition. One other migrant had been discharged, she said.

The migrant accused of starting the fire suffered only slight injuries and has already been released from the hospital, presumably into custody.

That migrant, along with three officials from the National Immigration Institute and two private security guards at the detention center face charges of homicide and causing injuries.

A video from a security camera inside the Ciudad Juárez facility showed guards walking away when the fire started inside the cell holding migrants and not making any attempt to release them. It was not clear whether those guards had keys to the cell doors.

But there have been years of complaints about poor conditions and human rights violations at migrant detention facilities in Mexico, including inadequate ventilation, food and water, and overflowing toilets.

Moreover, there is mounting evidence of corruption throughout Mexico’s immigration system, in which everyone from lawyers and immigration officials to guards have taken bribes to allow migrants out of detention.

Little has been done up to now to address these concerns.

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