8 a.m. March 29: This story has been updated with the latest information from Mexican officials on the number killed and injured.
CIUDAD JUAREZ – At least 38 people were killed in a fire Monday night in the city’s main processing center for migrants, and another 30 injured, Mexican officials said.
The fire was at the National Institute of Migration (INM) office at the foot of the Stanton Street/Lerdo bridge, one of two bridges linking Downtown El Paso to Juárez. The fire was in a facility that housed adult men from Central and South America.
Firefighters and Mexican soldiers stacked bodies wrapped in mylar blankets outside the migrant processing center.
Investigators haven’t announced a cause of the fire, but Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador blamed the detained migrants.
“This had to do with a protest that (the migrants) started after we suppose they found out that they were going to be deported and as a protest they placed mats at the door of the shelter and set them on fire,” he said in a news conference Tuesday morning.
Video shared on social media showed a fire spreading as migrants were locked behind bars and staff at the center began leaving. The source of the video wasn’t clear.
Tuesday morning, dozens of migrants showed up at the INM offices to demand answers and chanting “Justicia” (justice).
The victims were mostly from Central America, with the largest number — 28 — from Guatemala. The Mexican government had said early Tuesday that 39 were killed and 29 injured, but later lowered those numbers to 38 and 30. Officials released the names of the dead and injured late Tuesday.
The killed and injured were people who had been expelled from the United States under a public health law known as Title 42, or others seized this Monday by Mexican agents in a special operation carried out in Juárez to remove them from the road crossings where they clean windows, sell sweets or ask for money, La Verdad reported.
Several human rights groups on Tuesday called on the Mexican federal government to take responsibility for the incident.
The organizations said the government needs to stop referring to the facility as a shelter and call it a detention facility. The human rights groups say migrants are not allowed to leave and all of their belongings are taken.
Tensions have been rising in recent weeks between migrants and Juárez officials.
Earlier this month, Juárez Mayor Cruz Pérez Cuéllar vowed a crackdown on migrants, saying they were bad for the regional economy. Pérez statement came a day after hundreds of Venezuelan migrants, spurred by false social media reports that they would be allowed to cross into the United States, massed at the top of the Paso del Norte Bridge linking the downtown areas of Juárez and El Paso.
“It’s the (Mexican federal) migration’s fault, what’s happening is their fault,” Vianey Infante, a Venezuelan migrant who was waiting for her husband’s release outside the immigration station when the fire broke out, told La Verdad.
Infante said she went to the processing center because authorities told her they would release her husband because he was verified as a member of a family unit. After 9:30 p.m. she saw a lot of smoke coming out of the immigration center.
“I peeked out and started crying,” she said.
She saw women fleeing from the fire but not men, and she said she began fighting with Mexican immigration agents. “They are inhuman,” Infante said.
She said she was told that her husband was taken to a hospital.
El Paso Catholic Bishop Mark Seitz said the deadly conflagration should serve as a call to address the needs of migrants at the border.
“This tragedy underscores the urgency of addressing the complex humanitarian crisis that has continued to unfold unabated in our border community. Our brother and sister migrants, who are in many cases fleeing extreme violence, persecution, and extreme poverty, deserve dignity, compassion, and the protection of their human rights as children of God,” Seitz said.
“As a faith community, we are called to respond to their suffering with love, empathy, and support.”