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Arrest orders are issued for 6 people in the deadly Mexican immigration center fire

A Venezuelan migrant sits on the sidewalk where an altar was created with candles and photos outside the Mexican immigration processing center that was the site of a deadly fire, as migrants wake up after spending the night on the sidewalk in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, on Thursday.
Fernando Llano
A Venezuelan migrant sits on the sidewalk where an altar was created with candles and photos outside the Mexican immigration processing center that was the site of a deadly fire, as migrants wake up after spending the night on the sidewalk in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, on Thursday.

MEXICO CITY — A Mexican court issued arrest orders Thursday for six people in relation to the fire that killed 39 migrants at a detention facility this week in the border city of Ciudad Juárez, according to the federal prosecutor leading the investigation.

Sara Irene Herrerías said they include three officials from the National Immigration Institute, two private security guards contracted by the agency and the detained migrant accused of starting the fire. She said five of the six had already been arrested and would face charges of homicide and causing injuries.

At least 39 migrants died after apparently starting a fire inside a holding cell at the facility Monday night. More than two dozen others were injured.

Federal Public Safety Secretary Rosa Icela Rodríguez said 27 migrants remained hospitalized, all of them in either serious or critical condition. One other migrant had been discharged, she said. The migrant accused of starting the fire suffered only slight injuries and has already been released from the hospital, presumably into custody.

Rodríguez also said the private security firm involved, which she identified as Grupo de Seguridad Privada CAMSA, had a federal contract to provide security at immigration facilities in 23 states. She said it would have its operating permit revoked and face a fine.

Forty-eight federal agents would take over security duties at migrant facilities in the state of Chihuahua, where the fire occurred, Rodríguez said.

Complaint alleges top official knew about fire, ordered migrants not be released

A video from a security camera inside the Ciudad Juárez facility showed 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.

On Wednesday, a complaint filed with federal investigators from the federal Attorney General's Office accused the state's top immigration official of knowing about the fire but ordering that the migrants not be released.

The complaint filed by lawyer Jorge Vázquez Campbell said retired Navy Rear Adm. Salvador González Guerrero, the Chihuahua state delegate for the National Immigration Institute, "gave the order by way of a phone call that under no circumstances should the migrants 'housed' inside the place where the fire started be released."

The agency did not immediately respond to a request for comment about the allegations nor to a request to speak with González.

Campbell said he would not reveal his clients' identities for their protection, beyond saying they were connected to the case.

Mexican authorities announced Wednesday that eight suspects who worked at the facility were under investigation, as well as the migrant accused of starting the fire. Herrerías said then that González was not one of the eight officials called in to give statements about the incident.

Herrerías, the prosecutor, said Thursday that their investigation would include the entire chain of command for the immigration facility to determine what actions or omissions could be punishable.

Asked directly whether González had been called in to give a statement, Rodríguez said that prosecutors would not say anything which could jeopardize the case, but that the investigation would go where it needed to.

Campbell said his clients told him that one of the detained migrants asked a guard for a cigarette and a lighter and then five migrants who had been detained that day began to protest.

"The officials made fun of them, they got irritated, and two of them (migrants) set a mattress on fire," Campbell said.

That was the moment, Campbell said, that immigration agents at the facility notified González of the fire and he "told them not to do anything and under no circumstances should they let them leave."

Herrerías said Wednesday that prosecutors had not yet seen any evidence that such a call was made, but the investigation was continuing.

Investigations will look into why foam mattresses used, how fire started, other issues

Authorities in the region have known that foam mattresses in such facilities are easily set alight and can cause thick clouds of dangerous smoke, ever since a similar fire at a state-run home for troubled youths in Guatemala killed 41 girls in 2017.

"That is part of the investigation, the question of why those mattresses caught fire," Rodríguez said Thursday. "We will look at why these mattresses ignited, when that shouldn't have happened."

Rodríguez refused to answer questions about the cell being locked, the location of the keys and where the lighter came, saying those issues were all part of the investigation.

Mexico's immigration detention centers have been plagued for years by accusations of corruption and bad conditions.

The circumstances of the fire have angered families across the region who were still awaiting confirmation of whether their loved ones were dead or alive.

Late Wednesday, hundreds of migrants walked across the border in Ciudad Juarez in protest and turned themselves over to U.S. authorities.

Mexico President Andrés Manuel López Obrador said Thursday that he had told the attorney general to not give anyone special consideration and that impunity would not be permitted.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

The Associated Press
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