Mexico Investigates Migrant Deaths in Border City Fire as Homicide

CIUDAD JUÁREZ, Mexico — Mexican authorities announced Wednesday that they were investigating a fire at an immigration detention center in Ciudad Juárez as a homicide case, saying government workers and private security employees had not allowed detainees to to escape the fire that killed at least 39 people

Authorities, at a news conference, said they had identified eight suspects, including federal and state agents, and would issue four arrest warrants Wednesday.

“None of the public servants, nor of the private security guards, took any action to open the door to the migrants who were inside where the fire was,” said Sara Irene Herrerías Guerra, superior federal prosecutor for human rights.

The announcement came after video surfaced that appeared to show the migrants had been trapped when the fire broke out on Monday. Uniformed figures can be seen in the center walking away from the fire as people remain behind bars as the area fills with smoke.

Authorities said they may also investigate a migrant suspected of starting the fire.

“Our country’s immigration policy is one of respect for human rights,” said Rosa Icela Rodríguez, the government’s security secretary. “This unfortunate fact, which is the responsibility of the public servants and guards that have been identified, is not our country’s policy.”

It was a startling development in a case that has drawn intense scrutiny over the Mexican government’s handling of the surge of immigrants who have poured into the country over the past year, seeking entry into the United States.

Ciudad Juárez, across the border from El Paso, Texas, has long prided itself on absorbing waves of new arrivals, many from Mexico who come to work in factories and others from across Latin America who stop on their way to the United States.

But what used to be a transit point for US-bound migrants has become a hub for those who believe they have no choice but to stay, either after being sent back by US authorities or while wait to apply for legal entry.

At city intersections, groups of migrants can be seen asking for money. Some hold cardboard signs asking for help. Others sell food in coolers.

Many sleep on abandoned construction sites or anywhere else they can find on the streets of this Mexican city, wrapped in tattered blankets and sleeping bags.

“Help us eat and not sleep on the street,” read a sign held by Vicleikis Muñoz, 20, a Venezuelan from downtown Juárez who was eight months pregnant and traveling with her two children, ages 5 and 3.

“We survived by asking for money,” he said Wednesday. “I don’t know how much longer I can do this.”

Migrants have tried to cross the border en masse, a move that has frustrated many residents who cross into El Paso legally every day for work. The mayor of Ciudad Juárez promised repression, while human rights groups denounced abuses by the authorities.

Those simmering tensions were sharply eased Monday night when fire tore through the detention center, which is operated by the federal government. The Mexican president said the migrants had started the fire during a protest, suggesting they were angry because they found out they would be deported.

Viangly Infante Padrón, a Venezuelan migrant who has been in Ciudad Juárez since December, said authorities picked up her husband Monday afternoon and took him to the detention center.

She went there that day to try to get him out and waited inside until around 9:30 p.m., when she heard a commotion coming from where she believed the men were being held.

“I heard kicks and screams,” Infante Padrón said in an interview, adding that he heard an immigration officer say: “Get the women out.” Before they took her outside, she pleaded with officials to release the men.

“I started crying and said, ‘How come they are burning? Why don’t you open the door?’” said Ms. Infante Padrón. “They never opened the door for him, nothing.” She said she waited outside for 15 minutes before firefighters arrived and began removing the bodies. Her husband, she said, is now in the hospital.

On Wednesday, in front of a local school, the mayor of Ciudad Juárez, Cruz Pérez Cuéllar, defended the treatment that the city government gives to migrants.

“They are calling us xenophobic and racist,” he said. “This is a completely open government and there is no xenophobia on our part. We are a city of migrants”.

Analysts said a turning point for Ciudad Juárez came after President Biden, facing unrelenting Republican attacks over increased migration over the summer, announced a new policy aimed at curbing record levels of illegal border crossings.

US border officials had seen an explosion at the crossings of Venezuelans, who could not be deported by US authorities due to tense relations with Venezuela.

In October, the Biden administration reached an agreement with Mexico aimed at mitigating the influx: The United States could deport Venezuelans to Mexico in exchange for creating legal pathways for them to enter the United States.

The number of Venezuelans crossing the border illegally dropped in a matter of days. The Biden administration saw this so successful that he brokered another agreement with Mexico to expand the agreement to include Cubans, Haitians, and Nicaraguans, populations who similarly could not easily be expelled to their home countries.

But Ciudad Juárez soon began to see larger numbers of Venezuelans and others gathering in the streets, residents and analysts say. Many were in limbo: it was useless to try to cross into the United States because of the new policy, but they didn’t want to go home.

So they stayed.

“We entered a phase that we were not familiar with,” said Rodolfo Rubio, a migration expert and professor at El Colegio de Chihuahua, a public research institution in Ciudad Juárez.

Rubio said the sight of so many immigrants begging at intersections and camping out in the streets shook some in the city. The protests by Venezuelans, along with a large group effort to cross the border this month, also put authorities on alert.

The tension in Ciudad Juárez has been mirrored across northern Mexico, current and former officials say, as the Biden administration has made changes to its border policies.

This year, the United States created legal pathways for migrants from Cuba, Haiti, Nicaragua and Venezuela to apply for a two-year humanitarian permit in the country. The Biden administration also expanded access to a government app, cbp onefor immigrants to fill out an application and secure an appointment at a port of entry.

But to apply through the application, a migrant must be in northern Mexico. Now, people wait days and even months in Mexican border communities to secure an appointment, with only a limited number of spaces available.

At a shelter with about 800 migrants in Reynosa, Mexico, last week, only two appointments were secured, said Guerline M. Jozef, founder and chief executive of the Haitian Bridge Alliance, which helps people seeking asylum.

“We do not have the capacity to attend to this number of migrants,” said Martha Bárcena, who was Mexico’s ambassador to the United States from December 2018 to February 2021.

The fire, added Bárcena, “should make Mexico and the US aware that the agreed measures are not working and are causing terrible tragedies.”

A few steps from the scene of the fire, Carlos Armendáriz, who sells used tools on the sidewalks of Ciudad Juárez, said he was in solidarity with the victims and their families. But, he added, he had a mixed view of the migrant population in the city.

“I’ll be frank,” he said. “I don’t see them working. Most are begging.”

Mr. Armendáriz, 64, who was born and raised in Ciudad Juárez, was a migrant for years in the United States, working primarily in construction in Texas, until he was deported more than a decade ago.

Mr. Armendáriz said he had offered temporary work to some immigrants from Venezuela to help make repairs to his home. But almost none accepted the offer, he said.

“I was a migrant from the other side,” he said. “We would go there to work like beasts.”

Mr. Armendáriz emphasized that he still saw Juárez as a welcoming city and that it had opportunities for anyone who wanted to work hard. “But only 10 percent of the new people want to work,” he said. “The other 90 percent? I don’t know about them.

Some Venezuelans take issue with the perception that their presence is increasing tension in the city.

“We work hard every day,” said Jesús Cardoso, 29, a migrant from the Venezuelan state of Barinas. He and his wife, Yitmar, 30, make arepas, a Venezuelan staple, to sell on the streets.

Mr. Cardoso said they arrived a month ago with their 4-year-old son, who is enrolled in a public school in Ciudad Juárez. They hope to meet with relatives who live near Houston.

“All we want is a chance to cross the border,” he said. “We don’t want to stay here. But if we have to, we will survive.

Simon Romero reported from Ciudad Juárez, Mexico; Natalie Kitroeff From Mexico City; and eileen sullivan from washington Elda Cantu and Emiliano RodriguezMega contributed reporting from Mexico City.