At least 39 people were killed Monday night and 29 others seriously injured when a fire broke out at a government-run migrant detention center in northern Mexico, near the border with the United States, authorities said.
The fatal blaze comes as border cities across Mexico have been flooded with migrants turned back from the United States and more arriving from other countries, with many hoping to cross after a pandemic-era public health rule expires in May.
The fire broke out in a National Migration Institute facility in Ciudad Juárez, a border city across from El Paso, Texas, shortly before 10 p.m., according to a statement by the Mexican government.
Sixty-eight men from Central and South America were being detained there, the statement said, adding that 29 injured men were in serious condition and had been transported to hospitals for urgent care.
President Andrés Manuel López Obrador of Mexico said the men held at the facility had been angry at authorities.
“As protest, at the door of the shelter, they put mattresses and set them on fire, and they did not imagine that this was going to cause this terrible tragedy,” López Obrador said Tuesday. “We assume it was because they found out they were going to be deported.”
Migrants are sleeping in churches, hotels and sometimes on the street. To survive, many have taken to selling candies, cleaning windshields and begging for change.
Human rights groups signed a joint letter this month denouncing what they said were abuses by Mexican migration officials and “the criminalization of migrants.” The letter said that migrants’ documents were destroyed in a raid on a local hotel on March 8 carried out by units from the police, the national guard and the Mexican military.
“With the excessive presence, a clear message of intimidation is sent to the people,” read the statement.
The migrants killed in Monday night’s fire were mainly from Central America and Venezuela, López Obrador said. At least 28 of the victims were from Guatemala, according to the Guatemalan Foreign Ministry.