Mexico: head of immigration agency to be charged after fire that killed 40 migrants near Texas border

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Ciudad Juarez is a major crossing point for migrants entering the US, with its shelters full of people who have requested asylum and are waiting for their cases to be decided

Mexico’s top immigration official will face criminal charges over a fire that killed 40 migrants in Ciudad Juarez last month, but what exact charges he will face are yet to be revealed.

Federal prosecutors have said Francisco Garduno was remiss in not preventing the disaster at an immigration detention facility in Ciudad Juarez - which is across the border from El Paso, Texas, and a major crossing point for asylum seekers seeking refuge in the United States - despite earlier indications of problems at his agency’s detention centres.

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An official with the National Immigration Institute originally reported 40 people had died, but later said some may have been counted twice in the confusion. Twenty-eight people were injured and were in a “delicate-serious” condition. At the time of the blaze, 68 men from Central and South America were being held at the facility, the agency said. Almost all were from Guatemala, Honduras, Venezuela or El Salvador.

The decision to file charges against the head of the National Immigration Institute was announced late on Tuesday (11 April) 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 five low-level officials, guards and a Venezuelan migrant already facing homicide charges.

On Wednesday, President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador said that even though the Attorney General’s Office was investigating Garduno, prosecutors had revealed few details and it was not clear what they would charge him with. “We are going to wait and we are going to make decisions in the (right) moment,” Obrador said.

Mexican soldiers stand outside an immigration station in Ciudad Juarez, where at least 39 people were killed and dozens injured in a fire (Photo by HERIKA MARTINEZ/AFP via Getty Images)Mexican soldiers stand outside an immigration station in Ciudad Juarez, where at least 39 people were killed and dozens injured in a fire (Photo by HERIKA MARTINEZ/AFP via Getty Images)
Mexican soldiers stand outside an immigration station in Ciudad Juarez, where at least 39 people were killed and dozens injured in a fire (Photo by HERIKA MARTINEZ/AFP via Getty Images) | AFP via Getty Images

The Attorney General’s Office said several other officers of Garduno’s agency will also face charges for failing to carry out their duties, the statement said, but prosecutors did not explain what charges or identify the officials. Prosecutors said the case showed a “pattern of irresponsibility”.

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Anger initially focused on two guards who were seen fleeing the March 27 fire, without unlocking the cell door, but Obrador said on Tuesday that they did not have the keys.

In surveillance footage - which has been confirmed as authentic by Mexico's interior secretary - two people dressed as guards rush into the camera frame, and at least one migrant appears by the metal gate on the other side. But the guards did not appear to make any effort to open the cell doors and instead ran away as billowing clouds of smoke filled the structure within seconds.

Mexico’s president Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador said at the time the fire was started by migrants in protest after learning they would be deported. "They never imagined that this would cause this terrible misfortune," he said.

Shortly after the tragic fire, a National Immigration Institute spokesperson had said the agency “energetically rejects the actions that led to this tragedy”, without any further explanation of what those actions might have been.

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Migrant advocates said on Tuesday that the immigration facility was over capacity and that the site of the fire was small and lacked ventilation. "You could see it coming," the advocates’ statement said. "Mexico’s immigration policy kills."

Ciudad Juarez is a major crossing point for migrants entering the United States. Its shelters are full of migrants waiting for opportunities to cross, or who have requested asylum in the US and are waiting for their cases to be decided.

Images from the scene showed ambulances and firefighters surrounding the facility, with bodies under silver sheets lined up on the ground outside.

The BBC reports the number of migrants in Ciudad Juarez has swelled in recent months, with many heading to the southern border of the United States in expectation of an end to Title 42 - a Trump-era policy which gives the US government the power to quickly expel migrants trying to cross its border.

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Title 42, which allows US border officials to deny individuals entry to the US "to prevent the spread of communicable disease" was first implemented at the start of the Covid pandemic. The Biden Administration has announced plans to end it, but it remains in place for now.

The high level of frustration among migrants stuck in Ciudad Juarez was on display earlier this month when hundreds of mostly Venezuelan migrants acting on false rumours 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. US authorities blocked their attempts.

Mexico’s immigration detention centres have seen other protests and riots in the past. A group of primarily Venezuelan asylum seekers rioted inside an immigration centre in Tijuana in October, with police and National Guard troops stepping in to get the situation under control.

In November, dozens of migrants rioted in Mexico’s largest detention centre in the southern city of Tapachula, near the border with Guatemala. No one died in either incident.

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