CIUDAD JUAREZ, Mexico — Mexican authorities said Wednesday that eight employees or officials were being investigated for possible misconduct at a migrant detention center where a fire killed 39 male detainees.
Anger and frustration in the northern border town of Ciudad Juarez boiled over as hundreds of migrants made their way to a US border hoping to make a massive crossing.
Mexican authorities appeared to blame the deaths in Monday night’s blaze largely on contracted private security guards at the Ciudad Juarez detention center, across the border from El Paso, Texas. . The video showed guards rushing away from the smoky fire, apparently not trying to free the inmates.
No charges were announced, but authorities said they would seek at least four arrest warrants later today, including one for a migrant who was part of what they described as a small group that started the fire. They said a migrant also damaged a security camera inside the cell where the fire occurred.
Five of those being investigated for possible misconduct are private security agents, two are federal immigration agents and one is a state agent from Chihuahua, the federal security secretary said. public, Rosa Icela Rodríguez.
The investigation focused on how guards appeared to be making no effort to open the cell doors to the male inmates – almost all from Guatemala, Honduras, Venezuela and El Salvador – before smoke filled the room. part in seconds.
The deaths have caused frustration and may have played a role in a mass march late Wednesday afternoon by hundreds of migrants, who began marching towards a US border crossing believing that US authorities would let them pass.
The pent-up frustration of migrants who spent weeks trying to make appointments on a US cellphone app to file asylum claims has added to anger over the deaths. Rumors have spread among migrants that they may be allowed to enter the United States
Jorman Colón, a 30-year-old Venezuelan migrant, walked hand in hand with his 9-year-old daughter, saying he heard on social media that acquaintances had passed.
“We want to surrender,” Colón said, referring to the first stage of the asylum process.
Several hundred migrants crossed the shallow Rio Grande from Mexico into the United States and approached a gate in the border barrier that separates El Paso and Ciudad Juárez. Armed officers stood guard at the entrance to the American Gate.
Venezuelan migrant Victoria Molina, 24, complained that “the app never gives us a (meeting) date”.
A group of about 50 migrants first approached a Border Patrol vehicle and personnel and sat or knelt on the ground. About 25 of them were then led in single file through the front door into the United States and into a white school bus-type vehicle which drove off.
US officials said late Wednesday that a total of about 1,000 migrants had crossed the river and were being dealt with in an orderly fashion. It was unclear whether they would be allowed to stay or be bussed to an official border post to be deported.
Smoke began billowing from the migrant detention center on Monday evening after a group of detained migrants set fire to foam mattresses, protesting what they believed to be plans to move them or expel them.
Immigration authorities said they released 15 women when the fire broke out, but did not explain why no men were released.
President Andrés Manuel López Obrador said Wednesday that immigration officers and security guards from a private contractor were present at the facility.
Also on Wednesday, Pope Francis offered prayers at the end of his general audience for those who died in the “tragic fire”.
Leaked surveillance video shows migrants, fearing they were about to be moved, placing foam mattresses against the bars of their detention cell and setting them on fire.
In the video, later confirmed by the government, two people disguised as guards rush into the camera frame and at least one migrant appears near the metal gate on the other side. But guards seem to make no effort to open the cell doors and instead rush as clouds of smoke billow the structure in seconds.
It was unclear whether the two guards actually had the keys, but authorities suggested on Wednesday they should have obtained them or broken the lock – a very difficult task, given the rapidly spreading smoke.
US authorities have offered to help treat some of the approximately 30 people hospitalized in critical or serious condition, most apparently from smoke inhalation.
The migrants were stranded in Ciudad Jaura because US immigration policies do not allow them to cross the border to file asylum claims. But they were arrested because residents of Ciudad Juarez were fed up with migrants blocking border crossings or demanding money.
“There were several complaints from neighbors about a group of migrants, we don’t know if it was this group or another, who allegedly acted aggressively, asking people in the street for money, demanding it “, Rodríguez said.
The high level of frustration in Ciudad Juarez was already evident earlier this month when hundreds of mostly Venezuelan migrants tried to make their way across one of the international bridges to El Paso, acting on false rumors that the United States would allow them to enter the country. . US authorities blocked their attempts.
After that, the mayor of Ciudad Juarez, Cruz Pérez Cuellar, launched a campaign to inform migrants that there was room in the shelters and that it was not necessary to beg in the streets. He urged residents not to give them money and said authorities had removed migrant intersections where it was dangerous to beg and where residents viewed the activity as a nuisance.
On Wednesday, the mayor told AP that his office had not received any reports of migrant rights abuses in detention centers. He insisted his government shared no responsibility for what happened.
“This is a terrible tragedy that hurts us all. We are in mourning,” he said, adding that the authorities should “bring the full weight of the law to bear on those responsible – the people who, for example , have not opened the doors for migrants.”