When smoke began billowing out of an immigration detention centre in the Mexican border city of Ciudad Juarez, Venezuelan Viangly Infante Padron was terrified because she knew her husband was inside.
The father of her three children had been picked up by immigration agents earlier in the day, part of a recent crackdown that netted 67 other asylum seekers and migrants, many of whom were asking for handouts or washing car windows at stoplights in this city across the Rio Grande from El Paso, Texas.
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In moments of shock and horror, Infante Padron recounted how she saw immigration agents rush out of the building after the fire started late on Monday.
Then came the people’s bodies, carried out on stretchers, wrapped in foil blankets. The toll: at least 38 dead in a revised toll and 28 seriously injured.
“I was desperate because I saw a dead body, a body, a body, and I didn’t see him anywhere,” Infante Padron said of her husband, Eduard Caraballo Lopez, who survived with light injuries, perhaps because he was scheduled for release and was near a door.
But what she saw in those first minutes has become the centre of a question much of Mexico is asking itself: Why didn’t authorities attempt to release the men – almost all from Guatemala, Honduras, Venezuela and El Salvador – before smoke filled the room and killed so many?
“There was smoke everywhere. The ones they let out were the women, and those [employees] with immigration,” Infante Padron said. “The men, they never took them out until the firefighters arrived. They alone had the key.
“The responsibility was theirs to open the doors and save those lives, regardless of whether there were detainees, regardless of whether they would run away, regardless of everything that happened. They had to save those lives.”
Immigration authorities said they released 15 women when the fire broke out, but have not explained why no men were released.
‘Could see it coming’
Surveillance video leaked on Tuesday shows people, reportedly 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 verified by the government, two people dressed as guards rush into the camera frame, and at least one detained person appears by the metal gate on the other side. But the guards don’t appear to make any effort to open the cell doors and instead hurry away as billowing clouds of smoke fill the structure within seconds.
“What humanity do we have in our lives? What humanity have we built? Death, death, death,” Bishop Jose Guadalupe Torres Campos said at a mass in memory of those who died.
Mexico’s National Immigration Institute, which ran the facility, said it was cooperating with the investigation. Guatemala has already said that many of the victims were its citizens, but full identification of the dead and injured remains incomplete.
US authorities have offered to help treat some of the injured in critical or serious condition, most apparently from smoke inhalation.
For many, the tragedy was the foreseeable result of a long series of decisions made by leaders in places like Venezuela and Central America and by immigration policymakers in Mexico and the United States.
“You could see it coming,” more than 30 migrant shelters and other advocacy organisations said in a statement on Tuesday. “Mexico’s immigration policy kills.”
Those same advocacy organisations published an open letter on March 9 that complained of the criminalisation of asylum seekers and migrants in Ciudad Juarez. It accused authorities of abusing asylum seekers and using excessive force in rounding them up, including complaints that municipal police questioned people in the street about their immigration status without cause.
President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador offered sympathy on Tuesday but held out little hope of change. He said the fire was started by asylum seekers and migrants in protest after learning they would be deported or moved.
“They never imagined that this would cause this terrible misfortune,” Lopez Obrador said.
Immigration activist Irineo Mujica said the asylum seekers and migrants feared being sent back, not necessarily to their home countries, but to southern Mexico, where they would have to cross the country all over again.
“When people reach the north, it’s like a ping-pong game – they send them back down south,” Mujica said. “We had said that with the number of people they were sending, the sheer number of people was creating a ticking time bomb. Today that time bomb exploded.”
The asylum seekers and migrants were stuck in Ciudad Jaurez because US immigration policies do not allow them to cross the border to file asylum claims. They were rounded up because Ciudad Juarez residents were tired of asylum seekers and migrants blocking border crossings or asking for money.
The high level of frustration in Ciudad Juarez was evident earlier this month when hundreds of mostly Venezuelan asylum seekers and migrants tried to force their way across one of the international bridges to El Paso, acting on false rumours that the US would allow them to enter the country. US authorities blocked their attempts.
After that, Ciudad Juarez Mayor Cruz Perez Cuellar started campaigning to inform the asylum seekers and migrants there was room in shelters and no need to beg in the streets. He urged residents not to give money to them and said authorities would remove them from intersections where it was dangerous to beg.
Katiuska Márquez, a 23-year-old Venezuelan woman with two children, aged two and four, was looking for her half-brother, Orlando Maldonado, who had been travelling 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 asylum seekers and migrants died. “How could they not get them out?”