Eight guards and officials face possible murder charges after a blaze at a Mexican migrant detention centre in the northern border city of Ciudad Juarez killed 39 detained men.
An investigation was opened “for the crime of homicide and damage to property” though other possible charges will be considered, Sara Irene Herrerias, a prosecutor specialising in human rights, said on Wednesday.
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Dozens of people were locked in cells during the fire on Monday, witnesses and a survivor have said.
All the victims were male and Mexico’s government is under pressure to find out why they died after officials said women detainees at the centre were safely evacuated.
“None of the public servants or the private security personnel took any action to open the door for the migrants who were inside,” Herrerias told reporters.
Prosecutors have identified two federal agents, a state migration officer, and five members of a private security firm who may be responsible for the deaths, Security Minister Rosa Icela Rodriguez said at a news conference.
A short video circulating on social media on Tuesday – appearing to be security footage from inside the centre during the blaze – showed men kicking on the bars of a locked door as their cell filled with smoke.
Three uniformed people can be seen walking past without trying to open the door.
“Who didn’t let these people out? Clearly there is a serious crime. They weren’t capable of opening a gate,” Rodriguez said, noting the video was part of the investigation.
Emergency protocols and whether the private security company was properly trained would be examined, Rodriguez added.
“It looks like these guards didn’t have any training,” she said.
Authorities believe the fire, which killed mostly men from Guatemala and other Central American countries, was started by migrants setting alight mattresses in an act of protest when they discovered they would be deported.
Rescue Team Ciudad Juarez, a private paramedic service, reached the building at 10:05pm and found men in military attire pulling people out of the men’s unit, said a member of the group who was on site and declined to be named.
The fire, one of the deadliest migrant tragedies in years, occurred as the US and Mexico are battling to cope with record levels of border crossings at their shared frontier.
The high level of frustration in Ciudad Juarez was already evident earlier this month when hundreds of mostly Venezuelan migrants tried to force their way across one of the international bridges to El Paso, acting on false rumours that the United States would allow them to enter the country. US authorities blocked their attempts.
After that, Ciudad Juarez Mayor Cruz Pérez Cuellar started campaigning to inform 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 removed migrants from intersections where it was dangerous to beg and residents saw the activity as a nuisance.
On Wednesday, the mayor said his office had not received any reports of rights abuses of migrants in detention facilities. He insisted his government shared no responsibility for what happened.
“It’s a terrible tragedy that pains all of us. We are grieving,” he said, adding authorities should “come down with the full weight of the law on those responsible – the people that for instance, didn’t open the doors for the migrants.”