‘No impunity’ for migrant detention centre fire: Mexico president

‘How is it possible that the Mexican authorities left human beings locked up with no way to escape?’ Amnesty Int’l asks.

Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador has pledged there will be “no impunity” for those responsible for a fire at a detention centre that left dozens of migrants dead, as rights groups demand answers and call for accountability for this week’s fatal blaze.

“We will not hide anything and there will be no impunity,” Lopez Obrador said during his daily news briefing on Wednesday.

Those found to have been responsible for “causing this painful tragedy will be punished in conformity with the law”, the Mexican leader said.

The fire broke out late on Monday at a detention facility in Ciudad Juarez, a city in northern Mexico across the United States border from El Paso, Texas.

At least 38 migrants were killed and more than two dozen others were injured in the tragedy, which rights advocates have said highlights the growing restrictions US-bound asylum seekers face at the country’s southern border with Mexico.

The exact circumstances of the fire remain unclear, but Lopez Obrador said on Tuesday that the blaze was started by migrants protesting a decision to deport them to their home countries.

The detention facility was holding 68 migrants from Central and South America, Mexico’s National Immigration Institute said.

Most of the people killed or injured in the fire were from Guatemala, while the other victims were from Honduras, El Salvador, Venezuela, Colombia and Ecuador, authorities said.

‘How could they not get them out?’

A short video circulating on social media on Tuesday that appeared to be security footage from inside the detention centre during the blaze showed men kicking on the bars of a locked door. Three uniformed people can be seen walking past without trying to open the door.

Mexico’s Interior Minister Adan Augusto Lopez later appeared to confirm the video’s veracity to local media.

“These devastating events lay bare a truly inhumane system of immigration enforcement. How is it possible that the Mexican authorities left human beings locked up with no way to escape the fire?” said Erika Guevara-Rosas, Americas director at Amnesty International.

In a statement on Wednesday, the rights group urged the Mexican authorities to fully investigate what happened, including “allegations that the migrants were left locked up while the fire occurred”.

On Tuesday, about 100 migrants had gathered outside the immigration facility’s doors to demand information about relatives.

Katiuska Marquez, a 23-year-old Venezuelan woman with her two children, aged 2 and 4, was seeking 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 migrants died. “How could they not get them out?”

Rights advocates say there has been an increase in the number of asylum seekers arriving in Mexican border towns in recent weeks in hopes of reaching the US, raising tensions between migrants and authorities.

The administration of US President Joe Biden has been relying on Mexico to help curb a record number of arrivals at the border, including by expanding a widely denounced, pandemic-era expulsion policy known as Title 42.

On May 11, the Biden administration plans to end the policy and replace it with a sweeping new policy that largely bans asylum for anyone who travels through Mexico without first seeking protection there.

Rafael Velasquez, country director for the International Rescue Committee (IRC) in Mexico, told Al Jazeera in the aftermath of the blaze that the humanitarian infrastructure in Mexico is strained and “under-resourced” amid the surge in arrivals.

“We’ve also seen an increase in detention operations by the Mexican government taking place in hotels, in streets, and even in civil society shelters where people in need of international protection go for refuge and go for safety,” Velasquez said.

According to data shared by Amnesty International, the Mexican authorities held at least 318,660 people in migrant detention centres last year and expelled more than 106,000 people, including children and adolescents.

Demonstrators hold posters as they take part in a protest following the death of migrants at a Mexican detention centre
Demonstrators hold posters as they take part in a protest following the fatal Ciudad Juarez fire, outside the interior ministry building, in Mexico City, Mexico, March 29, 2023 [Henry Romero/Reuters]
Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies