Survivors of Mexico’s worst migrant detention center fire stuck in limbo, unable to support families

27 July 2023

MEXICO CITY (AP) — Four months after a fire at an immigration detention center near the United States border, eight badly burned survivors are stuck in their rooms at a Mexico City hotel.

They eat in the hotel restaurant and have regular medical check-ups and make calls home.

The Mexican immigration agency covers the daily costs and medical care for survivors of the fire that killed 40 migrants. Advocates call that a conflict of interest for an agency whose officials now face criminal charges, including negligence and even homicide, in Mexico’s worst migrant detention center fire.

Before the fire, some migrants incurred large debts to the smugglers who were supposed to deliver them to the United States. There, the migrants were supposed to immediately begin working to pay off the debts and support their families.

The survivors of the March 27 fire now feel trapped, with no money to move. Seeking U.S. asylum is a lengthy process but the migrants say that none of them want to return to home. They have humanitarian visas from Mexico, but their injuries don’t allow them to work.

Among the eight survivors is a 25-year-old Guatemalan former security guard. He requested anonymity because he fears the Mexican government could cut off his assistance.

He had been picked up by immigration agents as soon as he arrived to Ciudad Juarez on the day of the fire.

Packed into a large holding cell with dozens of others, a small group of migrants began to protest the conditions. Two have been charged with lighting the highly flammable foam mattresses in the cell and security video showed that the area filled with thick smoke in a matter of seconds.

Despite their cries for help, the guards fled and no one opened the cell. Authorities have also filed criminal charges against Mexican officials and a private security guard over their involvement in the case.

“It looked like it was out of a movie,” the young Guatemalan said, a mask covering part of his burned face, and bandages wrapped around his right forearm. His hand was amputated.

“From one moment to the next your life was changing,” he said.

He tried to escape the smoke and flames with other migrants in the bathroom. The trickle of water from the shower didn’t allow them to fill even a bucket to fight the fire. He only managed to wet his shirt before he saw the ceiling ignite and felt flames touch his face.

Firefighters eventually opened a hole in the wall where he was. He remembers seeing the opening and running toward a man with a mask who was pulling someone else out, but then lost consciousness.

“Thank God, I fell in front of him,” he said. He only remembered the sound of sirens and not being able to breathe.

He was hospitalized for a month and half, intubated for some of that time and fighting an infection. He regained consciousness in Mexico City. His father had come and was relieved to see him even in that state, because initially his son’s name was on the list of fatalities, and he thought he was coming to recover his remains.

The head of Mexico’s immigration agency, Francisco Garduño, is among eight officials charged in relation to the fire. He has remained in his post pending the outcome. The Guatemalan and some, but not all, of the other survivors from Honduras, El Salvador and Venezuela have been called to give statements to prosecutors.

Garduño and another high-ranking agency official were charged with illicitly carrying out their duties and not protecting those in their custody. Others, including guards at the facility, face homicide charges. After the fire, the agency closed a number of its detention centers and transferred migrants out of others. While there was early talk of reforming how the agency operates, nothing else concrete has happened.

Eduardo Rojas, a lawyer from the Foundation for Justice, which is providing legal counsel to the survivors said it is a blatant conflict of interest because, “the same institution connected to the crime is the one directly in charge of attending to the victims.”

The migrants could leave the hotel, but they felt like they were under constant surveillance. If they went out (authorities) were immediately looking for them,” Rojas said. Some survivors were pressured by authorities to not accept representation from NGOs like his, warning them in front of lawyers that they would lose compensation for their injuries, he said.

“The same institution connected to the crime is the one directly in charge of attending to the victims,” Rojas said.

A spokesperson for the agency denied that the survivors were under surveillance. In total, the agency has provided 21 humanitarian visas to survivors and 26 more to their relatives. About $5 million has initially been budgeted for reparations to the victims and their families, but that could be increased, the spokesperson said.

Rojas’ Guatemalan client avoids criticizing anyone. He was not initially told about the prosecutions when he got out of the hospital in May. He wasn’t called to give a statement until June. He feels like his life has been put on pause.

“We can move, but it isn’t a normal life,” he said. His father – among the relatives the government brought to Mexico to be with the victims – has had his own life interrupted, removing another breadwinner from the family.

Now the young Guatemalan waits for a prosthesis and practices writing with his left hand.

“Not being complete changed my life,” he said. He worries that he won’t be able to find work in Guatemala and that it would be difficult in the United States too, even though he still wants to try.

He wants to see his wife and their 9-month old daughter, whom he left behind in April.

He had quit his job as a security guard and paid $19,000 to a smuggler who promised to get him to Chicago without any problems.

“When you leave your country you know about the dangers in the street, the kidnappings, but not the dangers from the people guarding you. I never, never imagined that,” he said.

He keeps replaying the last conversation he had with his mother before the fire. He called her from the detention center to tell her he had been caught, but told her not to worry because he was in immigration custody.

“The most mistaken word in my life was to say I was OK there,” he remembers.

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