Mexican authorities are coordinating with foreign ministries of six countries to identify and transfer the bodies of the migrants who died in a fire at a detention center in Juárez this week as the investigation into the blaze continues.

Families of the migrants from Colombia, Ecuador, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador and Venezuela are being notified of the deaths and family members of at least one migrant had arrived at the public ministry in Juárez to identify their loved one on Wednesday, said Sara Irene Herrerías, a federal prosecutor specializing in human rights, during a press conference from Mexico City.

Forensic analysts are working with families to positively identify the bodies while agencies work to “support the dignified delivery of people” to their home countries, Herrerías added.

At the same time, authorities said at least eight people are being investigated for possible misconduct in the case, including one migrant who was among a small group who allegedly started the fire in a detention area at the Mexican National Institute of Migration and who is believed to have damaged a security camera. 

Others under investigation include federal agents, state immigration agents and members of a private security company, which Juárez media have identified as Grupo Tank Seguridad Privada. Mexican authorities have not confirmed the name of the security company.

Rosa Icela Rodriguez, the federal public safety secretary of Mexico, and Herrerías said much of the investigation will focus on why uniformed officers at the detention center didn’t attempt to help the migrants behind a locked wrought iron door when the fire broke out.

Without comment, both responded “no” when asked specifically if they’ve received or are investigating any statements that someone by phone gave an order that the door at the detention center dormitory not be unlocked when the fire started.

The investigation

Many of those under investigation have provided statements to authorities, and all evidence, including video footage, is being reviewed, Rodriguez said. The video evidence includes footage from the surveillance camera inside the detention center, as well as footage from at least one camera from the street outside the facility. No other details on the video evidence was provided.

The video from inside the detention center has been circulating on social media for several days and shows at least one migrant attempting to kick open a wrought iron door as the fire spreads and smoke billows in the area. At least two officials in uniform are seen leaving the center without attempting to help the migrants behind the locked door.

Migrants who were injured in the fire and transferred to area hospitals were also interviewed, as well as the women migrants who were in the facility and were evacuated from the premises when the fire broke out.

At least four arrest warrants were expected to be issued this week, with more possible in the coming days. Authorities didn’t say what those under investigation will be charged with, but indicated they could include homicide, injury to others, abuse of property and damaging property.

Rodriguez said the investigation will also look into whether the migrants at the center were legally detained and what their immigration status was at the time they were detained. Migrants have accused the Juárez police and municipal government of overstepping their authority and involving themselves in federal immigration processes by participating in migrant raids.

The facility

The detention area at the National Institute of Migration headquarters in Juárez, which sits at the foot of the Stanton Street bridge that connects with El Paso, was meant to provide a temporary holding area for undocumented migrants in the border city, officials said.

Migrants who had spent time in the detention area and have protested the treatment of migrants and demanded the deaths be investigated outside the institute the past few days have described the dormitory as an overcrowded “rathole” and a “pigsty” with mats on the floor, restrooms that don’t work and a gate that is padlocked at night.

More than 60 migrants were killed or injured Monday in a fire at the National Institute for Migration (INM) processing center in Ciudad Juárez. (Cindy Ramirez/El Paso Matters)

The Juárez facility is one of a dozen provisional immigration holding areas managed by Mexico’s National Institute of Migration, which also oversees 30 permanent facilities across the country, according to La Verdad.

The facility opened in 1995 with a capacity for 60 migrants and has never been expanded, according to a 2019 report from the National Commission for Human Rights. More than 80 migrants were in the dormitory on the day of the fire, La Verdad reported. Authorities have said the institute’s registry showed 68 migrants in the facility, but others may have been detained and not registered.

Officials with Mexico’s Institute for Security and Democracy for a decade have pointed out the lack of safety protocols at the detention facilities, including the practice of padlocking the dormitories at night and the lack of emergency exits, La Verdad reported. The report also indicates that fires have broken out at some immigration stations “on repeated occasions,” often started by migrants who are frustrated with inhumane treatment and want to get the attention of institute personnel.

During Wednesday’s press conference, Rodriguez, the federal public safety secretary, said the investigation into the fire at the Juárez facility will also look at what, if any, safety protocols were in place, whether any were followed, and what changes need to be implemented.

“We’re looking at what specific crimes may have been committed,” Rodriguez said. “What happened here was a grave crime, but we need to see step-by-step what specific crimes were committed in this case.”

El Paso native Cindy Ramirez has spent most of her career in journalism, with some stints in public and media relations and military reporting. She's covered everything from education to local government...