9:25 p.m., March 29: This story has been updated with Mexican officials saying they are investigating employees at the migrant detention center for their role in the fire.
CIUDAD JUAREZ – Wenceslao Rodriguez was making a phone call near the train tracks in downtown Juárez with his friend, Rannier, when Mexican immigration officials pulled up next to them on Monday.
“They didn’t ask us if we had permits, nothing,” Wenceslao said Wednesday. “It was just, ‘Get in, get in!’” the truck.
Rodriguez ran and managed to escape.
But Rannier was detained and transported to the National Institute of Migration at the foot of the Stanton Street international bridge. On Tuesday evening, his name appeared on the institute’s list of migrants who died in a fire at the detention facility Monday night: Rannier Edelber Requena Infante. He was 29 and had left behind a wife and three children in Venezuela, Wenceslao said.
“(Rannier’s family) doesn’t know yet,” Wenceslao said, stammering to find words. “I can’t find a way to give them news of that degree.”
Mexican officials announced late Wednesday that eight employees or officials of the migrant detention center are being investigated for possible misconduct in the fire. They said they planned to issue four arrest warrants, including one for a migrant who they said was involved in starting the fire.
The National Institute of Migration said 40 migrants died in the fire – up from the 38 previously confirmed. Another 28 migrants were injured in the fire and hospitalized. The agency said it had provided “visitor cards” to the hospitalized migrants to “guarantee” their hospital care. The agency said it also provided assistance to 15 migrant women who were displaced from the facility when the fire started.
The institute said it is covering funeral expenses for those who died in the fire, but didn’t indicate if or how it would notify family members or where those funerals would take place.
Wenceslao was among a crowd of Venezuelan migrants and local activists who remained outside of the migrant detention center on Wednesday. Like Wenceslao, many of the migrants said they felt that they could have easily been among the victims.
Though most of the people who waited outside of the facility were Venezuelan, their compatriots were a minority of the victims in the fire. Most of the men on the list were from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. All of these nationalities are subject to Title 42, the health policy that allows U.S. border enforcement agents to quickly expel migrants from eight countries to Mexico.
But Venezuelans in particular have been the target of attention from political leadership in Juárez, where Mayor Cruz Pérez Cuéllar earlier this month said the city was cracking down on migrants stranded in the border city and asked the public not to give money to migrants panhandling on the streets.
“(Pérez Cuéllar) was not only fomenting xenophobia, but also many people stopped helping us either with jobs or buying candy from us,” said Jennifer, a migrant from Venezuela. “We’re not here because we want to be, but because we are fleeing a political regime, so for the mayor to say something like that is not fair.”
Near the bars of a fence separating the migration institute from the street, Venezuelan Jean Carlos Cadena wept as a musician played a corrido dedicated to the victims.
His Ecuadoran friend was picked up during a migrant roundup several days ago and he has not heard from him since, Cadena said.
“His mom is worried about him and I don’t know what to tell her,” he said through tears.
Arturo Raul Ramirez Ramirez, general director of Mexico’s National Commission for Human Rights, visited the site Wednesday morning. After viewing the facility, he spoke with migrants outside and listened to their stories. He told the media he was not authorized to comment.
“The victims are martyrs,” Venezuelan Juan Paul told Ramirez Ramirez. “What occurred was a state crime. We are afraid for our lives.”
The international community should form a commission at the highest levels to investigate, said Juan Paul, garnering applause from the crowd.
The migration institute in a press release said it’s cooperating with the authorities from Mexico’s Office of the Attorney General and the National Human Rights Commission, and will provide them with the testimonies and evidence from the institute’s staff “to clarify the truth of the facts.”
Some of the migrants questioned the version of events provided by Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, who has said the detained migrants set mattresses on fire to protest that they were going to be deported.
“You need to use logic,” said a Venezuelan man who did not want to give his name. “They search us, they take everything – shoelaces, cigarettes, everything. How could they have started a fire?”
As the adults talked about justice and human rights, two boys played a game that looked like “cops and robbers.” One had his hands tied behind his back with a strip of discarded caution tape. The other walked behind him holding his arm as if he were under arrest.
“Look, I have him under Title 42,” he said as he led his friend away.