Mexico's president visits city where fire killed 39 migrants

Mexico's president is visiting the border city of Ciudad Juarez, where 39 men died in an immigration detention center fire

ByMARK STEVENSON Associated Press
March 31, 2023, 2:34 PM

MEXICO CITY -- Mexico’s president on Friday visited the border city where 39 migrants died in a fire at a detention center, expressing pain over the disaster though he was not expected to bring any changes in tough immigration policies.

President Andrés Manuel López Obrador said he was personally devastated by Monday’s tragedy in Ciudad Juarez, which is across from El Paso, Texas.

“I confess it hurt me a lot, it damaged me,” López Obrador said before starting out on his trip to Juarez. “It ripped my soul apart.”

The president said the fire was the second most painful moment of his administration, exceeded only by a 2019 pipeline fire in the central Mexico town of Tlahuelilpan that killed about 135 people.

However, it hasn’t cost him much politically.

Many residents of Mexican border cities mourned the death of the migrants in the smoky mattress fire, which was set by some migrants to protest perceived moves to deport them. But in Ciudad Juarez, many peope were fed up with migrants largely from Central America and Venezuela begging for change at street corners and blocking border bridges.

They and residents of other cities have been calling for authorities to be tough with migrants, and the U.S. also pressures Mexico to curb the flow of migrants.

Ivonne Acuña Murillo, a political science professor at Universidad Iberoamericana in Mexico City, said López Obrador doesn’t have much maneuvering room to change Mexico’s immigration policy.

“It would be difficult, on one hand, because of the enormous pressure from the United States” to stop migrants arriving at the border, Acuña Murillo said. She added that “it is difficult in terms of the president’s own policy goals ... the budget for migration and shelters and all of that is low.”

Migrant anger did flare in Ciudad Juarez on Friday, when a group of migrants and their supporters tried to block the president’s motorcade, leading to scuffles. Earlier in the day, he had promised to meet with doctors treating the injured, but it was not clear if that happened.

Eager to gain favor with the United States, López Obrador has made life hard for migrants seeking to cross Mexico to reach the U.S. border. He has assigned tens of thousands of army troops and National Guard officers to retain migrants, and allowed the United States to return migrants from Venezuela, Honduras, Nicaragua and Cuba to Mexico.

But the U.S. has contributed little to helping Mexico shelter or integrate the returned migrants.

López Obrador lashed out Friday, saying the U.S. should be spending more on economic development in Latin America to prevent migrants from leaving their homes, rather than sending military aid to Ukraine.

“How can you compare what the U.S. government sends to Central America, with the 30, 35 billion dollars it is spending on buying weapons for Ukraine?” he said.

Federal Public Safety Secretary Rosa Icela Rodríguez said that the government would close the detention center where the fire occurred and that it would check the conditions in other instalations.

On Friday, in the southern city of Tapachula, the biggest detention center for migrants was nearly emptied to review conditions, said a federal official, who who spoke on condition of anonymity. The center, with capacity for about 1,000 people, has been criticized repeatedly for overcrowding, unsanitary conditions and corruption.

López Obrador said he will set up a commission to ensure the human rights of migrants are protected. He said the commission will be headed by a longtime migrant activist, Rev. Alejandro Solalinde. It was unclear what powers the commission would have.

In the meantime, López Obrador said, “I will concentrate on the medical side, basically. What matters to me is treatment for the injured.”

Mexico has turned down a U.S. offer to help provide medial treatment to the injured, most of whom suffered smoke inhalation, saying they were too ill to be moved.

Rodríguez said Thursday that 24 migrants remained hospitalized, all of them in apparently either serious or critical condition. Four migrants had been discharged, she said.

The migrant accused of starting the fire suffered only slight injuries and already was released from the hospital, presumably into custody.

That migrant, along with three officials from the National Immigration Institute and two private security guards at the detention center face charges of homicide and causing injuries. The federal prosecutor's office says it also is investigating others for possible misdeeds.

A video from a security camera inside the Ciudad Juarez facility shows guards walking away when the fire started inside the cell holding migrants and not making any attempt to release them. It was not clear whether those guards had keys to the cell doors.

There have been years of complaints about poor conditions and human rights violations at migrant detention facilities in Mexico, including inadequate ventilation, food and water, and overflowing toilets.

And there is mounting evidence of corruption throughout Mexico's immigration system, in which everyone from lawyers and immigration officials to guards have taken bribes to allow migrants out of detention.

Little has been done up to now to address these concerns.

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Associated Press writers María Verza in Mexico City and Edgar H. Clemente in Tapachula contributed to this report.