Migrant deaths at Mexican detention centre investigated as suspected homicide

<span>Photograph: Guillermo Arias/AFP/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Guillermo Arias/AFP/Getty Images
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The deaths of at least 39 migrants in a fire at a Mexican detention centre are being investigated as suspected homicides, a prosecutor has said, accusing those in charge of doing nothing to evacuate the victims.

Authorities faced mounting scrutiny of their handling of the disaster after video surveillance footage appeared to show guards leaving as flames engulfed a cell with migrants locked inside.

An investigation was opened “for the crime of homicide and damage to property”, though other possible crimes will also be considered, Sara Irene Herrerías, a prosecutor specialising in human rights, said.

Related: ‘They’re killing us’: anger grows after deadly fire at Mexican migrant center

“None of the public servants or the private security personnel took any action to open the door for the migrants who were inside,” she told reporters.

Eight people have been identified as allegedly responsible for the failure, the security minister, Rosa Icela Rodríguez, said at the same news conference. They are two federal agents and a state immigration official, as well as five members of a private security company.

Prosecutors have already requested several arrest warrants, Herrerías said.

The Mexican president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, earlier vowed there would be “no impunity” over the tragedy in Ciudad Juárez near the US border.

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

López Obrador said on Tuesday that the migrants were believed to have started the fire themselves in a protest against deportations.

In a widely shared surveillance video, whose authenticity was confirmed by the government, three guards seem to hurry away leaving migrants in their cell as flames spread and smoke rapidly fills the building.

El Salvador, which said some of its citizens were seriously injured, demanded that the people in charge of the facility be punished since the video showed migrants “were left inside the cells without any chance of getting to safety”.

In Washington, the White House press secretary, Karine Jean-Pierre, described the video as “heartbreaking” and offered “condolences for the tragic loss of life”.


She said officials from the two countries had been in contact, and raised the possibility that some of the injured might be allowed to receive medical assistance in the United States.

Dozens of migrants spent the night outside the National Migration Institute (INM) facility in Ciudad Juárez waiting for information about their relatives and friends.

The dead and injured included people from Guatemala, Honduras, Venezuela, El Salvador, Colombia and Ecuador, Mexican authorities said.

President Joe Biden’s administration has been hoping to stem the record tide of migrants and asylum seekers undertaking often dangerous journeys organised by human smugglers to get to the United States.

About 200,000 people try to cross the border from Mexico into the United States each month, most of them fleeing poverty and violence in Central and South America.

On Wednesday night more than a thousand migrants in Juárez surrendered to US border authorities in El Paso, directly across the Texas-Mexico border, frustrated by recent asylum policies, and shaken by the fatal fire.

In a statement late Wednesday, US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) said it was expelling migrants under the Covid-era order known as Title 42 – which is set to expire on 11 May – and beginning removal proceedings for other migrants whose countries of origin mean they are not expelled directly under the measure but lack legal status.

Migrants continued to complain that a new US government app meant to streamline the process of securing asylum appointments from outside the US is dysfunctional.

Carrying children and belongings, groups of migrants moved briskly on Wednesday afternoon toward a gate at a section of the US border wall on the frontier, which has become a destination for asylum seekers and smugglers trafficking them.

“Now, with God’s favor, we’ll make it there,” said Carlos García, pulling his young daughter at a jog as he tried to get his name on a list supposedly granting access to the US.

A false rumor circulated on social media on Wednesday that migrants surrendering at a specific spot at the border would be able to freely cross into US territory.

Edgar Naranjo, 27, a migrant from Maracay, Venezuela, told the Guardian on Thursday that this was not the first time false rumors have misled migrants into surrendering to US authorities.

Wednesday evening, Naranjo was with a group of migrants looking for a what they hoped would be a legal entry route to US territory. But he grew increasingly suspicious as he approached the border and decided to turn back, fearful of arrest.

“When we’re in a situation like this, we don’t know what’s happening or what will happen next,” Naranjo said. “We’re victims of everything, including these rumors.”

By late afternoon hundreds had formed a line along the steel barrier on US soil. By early evening, CBP agents had begun processing migrants through a door intended for maintenance workers.

Two dozen migrants interviewed by Reuters said they were fed up with daily discrimination and violence in Mexico, with some saying they feared suffering a similar fate to the 39 men who died in Monday’s fire.

“I came to live, not to die,” said Juan Velázquez, a 22-year-old migrant. “That’s why I want to leave here now. Mexico is not a place for us.”

“I’ve already been there,” he added, referring to the detention center. “They treat us like criminals.”

By the border, a young Venezuelan mother prayed alongside her two daughters – visibly tired and wearing torn, dirty clothes. “God, help us,” she said over and over.

As they waited for a chance to cross the border, border patrol agents and Texas national guard troops blocked the massive metal gate, while a US security helicopter flew overhead.