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Ciudad Juárez

Mexican immigration agency chief to be charged in fatal fire at Ciudad Juárez detention center

Federal prosecutors say Francisco Garduño was remiss in not preventing the disaster despite earlier indications of problems at his agency’s migrant centers

Workers carry the coffins of Guatemalan migrants whose remains arrived at the La Aurora Air Force Base in Guatemala City, on April 11, 2023.
Workers carry the coffins of Guatemalan migrants whose remains arrived at the La Aurora Air Force Base in Guatemala City, on April 11, 2023.Moises Castillo (AP)

Mexico’s top immigration official will face criminal charges in a fire that killed 40 migrants in Ciudad Juarez last month, with federal prosecutors saying he was remiss in not preventing the disaster despite earlier indications of problems at his agency’s detention centers.

The decision to file charges against Francisco Garduño, the head of Mexico’s National Immigration Institute, was announced late Tuesday by the federal Attorney General’s Office.

It followed repeated calls from within Mexico, and from some Central American nations, not to stop the case at the five low-level officials, guards and a Venezuelan migrant already facing homicide charges in the case.

On Wednesday, President Andrés Manuel López Obrador said that even though the Attorney General’s Office was investigating Garduño, prosecutors had revealed few details and it was not exactly clear what they would charge him with.

“We are going to wait and we are going to make decisions in the (right) moment,” López Obrador said.

Anger initially focused on two guards who were seen fleeing the March 27 fire, without unlocking the cell door to allow the migrants to escape. But President Andrés Manuel López Obrador said earlier Tuesday that they didn’t have the keys.

The Attorney General’s Office said several other officers of Garduño’s agency will also face charges for failing to carry out their duties, the statement said, but prosecutors did not explain what specific charges or identify the officials.

Prosecutors said the case showed a “pattern of irresponsibility”

The press office of the immigration agency that Garduño heads did respond to messages and phone calls requesting comment.

Prosecutors said that after a fire at another detention center in the Gulf coast state of Tabasco killed one person and injured 14 in 2020, the immigration agency knew there were problems which needed to be corrected. but alleged they failed to act.

There have long been complaints about corruption and bad conditions at Mexico’s migrant detention facilities, but they have never been seriously addressed.

López Obrador’s comments about the guards in last month’s fire in the border city of Ciudad Juárez came on the same day that the bodies of 17 Guatemala migrants and six Hondurans killed in the fire were flown back to their home countries.

It was unclear what effect López Obrador’s comments might have on the trial of the guards, who were detained previously over the fire.

“The door was closed, because the person who had the keys wasn’t there,” López Obrador said.

A video from a security camera inside the facility shows guards walking away when the fire started in late March inside the cell holding migrants.

The guards are seen hurrying away as smoke fills the facility, and they did not appear to make any effort to release the migrants.

Three Mexican immigration officials, a guard and a Venezuelan migrant are being held for investigation in connection with the fire. They face homicide charges.

The migrant allegedly set fire to foam mattresses at the detention center to protest what he apparently thought were plans to move or deport the migrants.

In Guatemala City, relatives of the victims gathered at an air force base with flowers and photos of the deceased to mark their return.

“My son, my love,” a female voice could be heard calling out, amid sobs from those present as the coffins were unloaded and placed in a line, and relatives were allowed to approach them.

Mexican military planes carried the bodies six migrants to Honduras and 17 to Guatemala. Authorities say 19 of the 40 dead were from Guatemala, but two bodies were still in the process of having their identities confirmed.

An additional 11 Guatemalans were injured in the fire.

Guatemalan Foreign Minister Mario Búcaro accompanied the bodies, which were to be taken overland to their hometowns in nine different provinces.

Some bodies of Salvadoran migrants were returned to El Salvador last week. So far, 31 bodies have been sent back to their home countries.

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