Ciudad Juárez fire survivor: ‘I took off my thermal blanket, raised my hand, and they said ‘there is a living one among the dead’

The victims of the blaze at the National Institute of Migration, which left 40 dead, speak for the first time about what happened on the night of March 27

Incendio Ciudad Juarez
A migrant survivor of the March 27 fire at a migrant center in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico.Rodrigo Oropeza
Beatriz Guillén

On Monday, March 27, just after nine o’clock at night, Carlos was presumed dead. Lying on the asphalt at the National Institute of Migration detention center in Ciudad Juárez, he was placed next to dozens of men who had died as a result of a fire at the facility. Firefighters had pulled them out of the burning building. Among the already covered bodies, suddenly, there was a slight movement. “I woke up outside, I had a thermal blanket on my face, I took it off and raised my hand and that’s when they said ‘there is a living among the dead,’” the 31-year-old Venezuelan says four months later. Carlos is a survivor of one of the largest migrant disasters in Mexico. That day, 67 men were locked in a federal detention center when a fire broke out, and no one opened the door to let them out: 40 of them died and 27 others were seriously injured. This Tuesday, for the first time, the survivors had a chance to tell their story.

Carlos is tall, athletic, and says he has already recovered most of the 27 kilos he lost after the fire. A Physical Education graduate from Venezuela, he was a professional soccer player in several teams in Maracaibo, his hometown, and in Bolivia, where he lived with his wife from 2019. He now has to live with vivid memories of what he survived, and exercise is the only thing that keeps him sane these days. He walks calmly into the Mexico City headquarters of the Foundation for Justice and the Democratic Rule of Law (FJEDD), the organization that is handling his case and that of seven other survivors of the tragedy, and shakes hands with everyone, smiling. His demeanor changes when he starts talking about the journey that led him to the Ciudad Juárez fire.

In February, Carlos and his 25-year-old sister left Venezuela with the same dream as thousands of others: a job in the United States. The journey lasted almost 50 days and had them pass through Colombia, Panama, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Honduras, Guatemala, and finally Mexico. During that journey, they had to cross the jungle. The Darién has become a death trap for migrants crossing the continent, something that Carlos can attest to: “In the jungle there are pumas, jaguars, and snakes. The river and the mountains are dangerous, but if I had to choose between the jungle or Mexico, give me the jungle. I’d rather make my way through the jungle a thousand times than cross Mexico.” They entered through Tapachula and traveled through the country on foot, by bus and on the La Bestia (the Beast), the train that leaves dozens of migrants mutilated every year. Along the way, they were extorted by the Mexican authories. Finally, they entered Juárez running through fields to flee from the police. It was the end of March.

The fence and the cage

The days leading up to the tragedy were all the same. They would sleep two nights in a hotel, which charged them 500 pesos (about $30), another in the cold street, and then repeat the cycle. Early each day they would check the CBP One application — the platform that the United States government has created to manage asylum claims —, but to no avail. Every morning, Carlos went to get lunch. He walked all the way down the main avenue to get away from the city center and went to a stall run by a lady who had the cheapest rice. He was sometimes accompanied by Samuel Marchena, a 29-year-old Venezuelan friend.

On March 27, Carlos was going through his routine when at around 11:30 in the morning, the police surrounded them in the middle of the road. “We started running, but they cornered us. Samuel, who was not so athletic, tried to run but it was very difficult for him because he smoked a lot and they grabbed him quickly. They were very violent with Samuel and I went back for him. They threw me to the floor. They never asked us for papers or documentation, just [told us to] ‘get up,’” Carlos recalls. Samuel would die hours later in the fire.

EL PAÍS recovered dozens of testimonies along the same lines as Carlos’. That Monday, a brutal roundup of migrants was unleashed in Ciudad Juárez: they were detained at the doors of hospitals, at traffic lights, in stores, while cleaning windows, selling pallets or charging their cell phones. The authorities have not yet clarified who gave the order for the mass arrests: was it the municipal government that asked the National Institute of Migration for help? Or was it the other way around? In total, 71 migrants were removed from the streets that day and taken to the detention center, according to a statement from the government of Chihuahua.

At one o’clock in the afternoon, Carlos and Samuel were already inside the cell that would later become a cage. He describes the space as crowded, smelly, full of urine and cigarette butts. “They didn’t clean that; it was like a prison.” There was no toilet paper or water in the bathrooms, no drinking water. Carlos managed to make a call to his sister to let her know he was detained. In the middle of the afternoon, they took a group of dozens of migrants out on buses. But when it was time for dinner, there wasn’t enough food to go around. Arguments broke out between the detainees and the guards. “They made fun of us, very often, they asked us what we were doing in this country, that we were not welcome, that we were going to starve. They disrespected us a lot. Many migrants were offended and were beginning to get angry,” he recalls.

Fragments of horror

Who started the fire? Why did neither the guards nor the immigration personnel open the gate to let the migrants get away from the flames? Who made the decision to leave 67 men locked up? Where were the keys and fire extinguishers? Why were there no emergency exits? These are all questions that are now part of a large criminal case against two migrants and a dozen public servants. Among the accused is the still-head of the National Institute of Migration, Francisco Garduño, who is accussed of being criminally remiss in not preventing the fire.

Carlos cannot reveal anything that could hinder the investigation, but this is what he remembers of the first few minutes of the fire, when horror was unleashed: “When the fire started, I went to the door and said to one of the policemen, ‘Brother, help us, don’t let us die here, please.’ Then the smoke started, but smoke from burning plastic is very strong, very toxic, it floods your face, and you can’t see or smell. They told us, ‘Good luck, buddy.’ Seeing that they were making fun of us, I ran to the bathroom. When I entered, the light went out, I don’t know if it was because of the fire, but I heard a boom. I tried to turn on the tap but just a trickle of water came out. Then, it was like [the water] shot out strong and hard, and that was what also saved us. I wet my face. There were a lot of people, there were about 40 of us in a bathroom, you couldn’t see anything, it was dark, but we were very close, you could feel the breath of someone nearby. We started desperately shouting ‘help, help!’ But nothing. No one came,” he says.

“Then I saw the fire, the yellow and the orange, I saw that it was running all over the hall, I saw that it was already coming into the bathroom, it was already entering, and [people began feeling it on their faces] and began to shout: ‘I’m burning!’ I had a long, thick jacket, I covered my face and wet my eyes, I drank water, but there was a moment when you could no longer swallow water or smell or scream or close your eyes or open them because the plastic and smoke covered your whole face. [From that point] you cannot scream because you were hoarse already. I was crying and saying, ‘This can’t be it. Am going to die here?’”

“In the fire I realized that Samuel had died. Because he was screaming for me, he was saying, ‘Where are you, brother?’ Since we couldn’t see anyone, there were so many people that you couldn’t identify your friends. I heard when people started falling, they were fainting. You could tell when someone fell because of the sound [they made] hitting the floor. There came a time when there was no one standing, everyone was on the floor and I tried not to step on them, but it was impossible. I stood there, I leaned like this on the wall, which was very hot, that’s when I burned my left ear. And what I did was cry and pray. I gave myself to God. If I had done anything wrong, forgive me. That’s what I remember,” he concludes.

22 days hospitalized

Carlos woke up at the Hospital de la Familia in Ciudad Juárez, was reunited with his sister and spoke with his wife. He didn’t remember anything, only that his throat and his chest hurt a lot. He told a doctor, “My body hurts a lot inside, I’m burning.” He went into cardiac arrest, was resuscitated and taken to the operating room, had a pleural effusion and third-degree burns in the lung, esophagus, stomach, pancreas, and liver. He was intubated and sedated in intensive care for 22 days, first in Juárez and then in Mexico City, where he was transferred with a small group of migrants in very serious condition. He recovered within a couple of weeks but didn’t get better until his father arrived.

“It was the first time in my life that I was hospitalized. I took away the probe, the devices, they had to tie me up. In a moment of delirium I thought I was in Venezuela. The doctors were very good to me. I told one to take out my tubes, to let me die, I felt very bad. After six days awake, my dad arrived, and my soul entered my body and I started crying. After five or six days they took me out of the hospital and my mood improved a lot. I stayed at a very nice, very comfortable hotel, but I wanted to rest, because I could not sleep in the hospital. Every sound reminded me of the fire and the smoke. [If there was anything on my face] I felt that I was short of breath, like I was drowning. "

Carlos now lives with his father in that same hotel in Mexico City, which is paid for by the National Migration Institute, along with food for both of them. Seven other survivors are staying at the same hotel, accompanied by the FJEDD and other organizations, which take care of everything that the government does not cover, including psychological care and some activities on weekends. All while they await the judicial process against those accused of homicide and injuries, on the one hand, and the compensation that the state must guarantee them, on the other. “There is already a recommendation from the National Human Rights Commission in which [the survivors] are already accredited as victims, and the state has to respond for these violations,” regardless of the outcome of the criminal investigation, explains Eduardo Rojas, litigation coordinator of the FJEDD.

Mexico has given the survivors a one-year humanitarian visa, although most have not gotten a job, because of their ongoing physical condition. “They all have external burns, to a greater or lesser degree, and burns in the airways. Two of them, as they were without oxygen for several minutes, have neurological damage. They’re being evaluated, we don’t know if it’s going to be permanent. Another lost a hand to burns and we are still waiting for a prosthesis,” says Rojas, who is helping the migrants get a humanitarian permit, known as parole, for the United States, where they were all traveling to.

The U.S. is also Carlos’ destination, but only to work for a few years Then he wants to return home, to Maracaibo, Venezuela, and set up a soccer school for children. He has already located the land where he would like to set it up, he says and smiles at last. Dreams do not end for those who survived hell.

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