MEXICO CITY (AP) — Migrants fearing deportation set mattresses ablaze at an immigration detention center in northern Mexico, starting a fire that killed at least 40 people, the president said Tuesday, in one of the deadliest events ever at a Mexican immigration lockup.
Hours after the fire broke out late Monday, rows of bodies were laid out under shimmery silver sheets outside the facility in Ciudad Juarez, which is across from El Paso, Texas, and a major crossing point for migrants. Ambulances, firefighters and vans from the morgue swarmed the scene.
Twenty-nine people were injured and are in “delicate-serious” condition, according to the National Immigration Institute.
At the time of the blaze, 68 men from Central and South America were being held at the facility, the agency said.
Immigration authorities identified the dead and injured as being from Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Venezuela, Colombia and Ecuador, with Guatemalans being the largest contingent, according to a statement from the Mexican attorney general’s office.
Guatemala Foreign Affairs Minister Mario Búcaro said 28 of the dead were Guatemalan citizens.
“We are going to look to find those responsible for this,” Búcaro said.
Mexico President Andrés Manuel López Obrador said the fire was started by migrants in protest after learning they would be deported.
“They never imagined that this would cause this terrible misfortune,” López Obrador said, adding that the director of the country’s immigration agency was on the scene.
The detention facility is a short walk from the U.S. border and across the street from Juarez’s city hall.
At the facility's doors, Venezuelan migrants gathered Tuesday to demand information about relatives.
Katiuska Márquez, a 23-year-old Venezuelan woman with her two children, ages 2 and 4, was seeking her half-brother, Orlando Maldonado, who had been traveling with her.
“We want to know if he is alive or if he’s dead,” she said. She wondered how all the guards who were inside made it out alive and only the migrants died. “How could they not get them out?”
Márquez and Maldonado were detained Monday with the children and about 20 others. They had been in Juarez waiting for an appointment from U.S. authorities to request asylum. They were staying in a rented room where 10 people were living, paying for it with the money they begged in the street.
“I was at a stoplight with a piece of cardboard asking for what I needed for my children, and people were helping me with food,” she said. Suddenly agents came and detained everyone.
“Immigration grabbed me by the jacket and put me in the truck with my brother and other families,” she said.
Everyone was taken to the immigration facility but only the men were placed in the cells. Three hours later, the women and children were released.
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