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A survivor recalls horrors of Mexico's migrant center fire that almost killed him

Hundreds of migrants go to a Mexican migration office seeking information about victims of a fire inside a migrant detention center in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, on March 28.
David Peinado/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images
Hundreds of migrants go to a Mexican migration office seeking information about victims of a fire inside a migrant detention center in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, on March 28.

MEXICO CITY — Just a few feet away from the U.S. border, inside the crammed cell of a makeshift jail, something terrible was building. A 28-year-old man in the filthy, mass cell watched with growing dread as more and more people were led into the room where they were being held in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico.

All were migrants from other countries, some caught crossing the border into the United States, others picked up in sweeps by Mexican officials as part of ongoing U.S.-Mexico collaboration.

There was no water and scant food. There was no toilet paper and no running water in the two open-air toilets. Sewage spilled onto the floor. The migrants were getting desperate, clamoring for help and pleading to not be deported home, but guards from Mexico's immigration agency were increasingly dismissive.

"I asked for water and a guard responded, 'You want it, give me 500 pesos,'" the migrant from El Salvador recalls. That's about $30.

To migrants' demands for water, another guard said, "Go back to your own country and complain there."

The Salvadoran man went on to survive one of the deadliest events involving migrants near the Mexico-U.S. border: On March 28, a fire at the Ciudad Juárez migrant detention center killed 40 people and injured 27. This man's account of what happened in the crowded facility, and his experiences that followed, depicts inhumane treatment by the National Migration Institute, Mexico's migration enforcement arm. And experts say the agency has failed to reform abusive practices.

These conditions have worsened, migrant advocates say, as the United States continues relying on Mexico and other parts of Latin America to help curb the influx of migrants at its border.

In an interview in Mexico City, the survivor asked NPR not to use his name because he fears retribution in both Mexico and El Salvador.

He and his two cousins had left their home country about a week before the fire. He says they were fleeing the Salvadoran government's controversial anti-gang strategy, which has jailed 70,000 people without a trial. Human rights groups say the arrests of juveniles and adult men have been indiscriminate. Family and friends encouraged the three men to leave El Salvador after seeing arrests of people they believed had no affiliation with gangs.

After making their way through Central America and Mexico, they crossed into the United States illegally early in the hours of March 27. But the migrant says they never got a chance to explain why they had to leave El Salvador or ask for asylum: U.S. officials immediately expelled them back to Mexico under a Trump-era policy known as Title 42. The Biden administration continued using Title 42, but the policy got held up in the courts last year, and eventually ended this past May.

The three Salvadorans quickly landed in the Mexican makeshift detention center near the border.

The survivor says tensions grew as 67 migrant men were packed into one cell, while 15 women were in another, in a facility with an official capacity of 60. An official — who this migrant suspected was higher up because of his more formal uniform — arrived to try to resolve the situation, he says. But it only got worse.

A Venezuelan migrant, from this survivor's memory, threatened to light one of the foam sleeping mats on fire unless the guards gave them water and told them what was going to happen to them.

"If you were gonna do it, you'd have already done it by now," the migrant recalls the official responding.

Soon, the Salvadoran man saw a sleeping pad on fire.

"That's when I got really scared," he says.

He and his cousins ran toward the back of the cell, as far as they could get from the fire. The flames grew and smoke filled the cell. Fellow migrants searched frantically for an exit but there was no way out. He lost sight of his cousins in the commotion.

"I inhaled smoke," he says. "I felt my insides burning."

And then everything went dark.

Security footage later showed that as the fire grew, guards did not open the gate. A lawyer alleged that a senior official told guards not to open the cell when the fire started.

Ten people have since been criminally charged over the deaths of 40 migrants and injuries of another 27. Six of the accused are subcontracted security guards or officials from Mexico's National Migration Institute. Guards have been charged with homicide. The agency's commissioner, Francisco Garduño Yáñez, and another senior official have been charged with failure to perform public duties, with prosecutors alleging they were responsible for ensuring the detention center was safe. Two Venezuelan migrants who allegedly started the fire were also charged with murder.

Commissioner Garduño, who remains in his post, has denied responsibility for the fire.

Survivors receive "very unusual" treatment

A survivor's scars from the fire at the immigration detention center of the National Migration Institute in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico.
/ James Fredrick for NPR
James Fredrick for NPR
A survivor's scars from the fire at the immigration detention center of the National Migration Institute in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico.

Hours after the fire, six survivors in critical condition were airlifted to hospitals in the Mexican capital. One died days later.

Having blacked out during the fire, the Salvadoran migrant eventually woke up confused under bright lights. He couldn't move. There was a tube down his throat.

Doctors explained he was in Mexico City and had been in a coma for the last month. He had serious damage to his lungs and one kidney, and had third-degree burns on his arms and back.

"My mother was there and I cried when I saw her," he says. She had been granted a special visa to be with her son in Mexico. She was overjoyed to see him open his eyes, but she had bad news: His two cousins had died in the fire.

"Only God knows why I was left alive," he says through tears.

He gave a statement to state prosecutors investigating the case.

As he began his recovery, regaining strength in his legs and lungs that would allow him to walk again, something strange was happening.

"It was migration agents driving me everywhere, in the same" armored vans used to transport detained migrants, he says.

They drove him between public hospitals where he was being treated and a hotel, where they were paying for lodging for the fire survivors.

After major human rights violations occur, experts say, Mexico's Executive Commission for Victim Assistance provides services to handle medical, psychological, financial and other survivors' needs.

It is traumatizing for victims to have to face every day the institution that left them locked in the cell to die.

Government agencies blamed for the rights violations — in this case, the National Migration Institute — are supposed to cover these costs but not have direct contact with victims while criminal investigations are ongoing.

"What's happening with the Ciudad Juárez survivors is very unusual," says Lorena Cano, a lawyer with the nonprofit Women in Migration Institute. The group represents migrants (mostly women and children but also men) who have been victims of crimes.

Despite the criminal charges, the Mexican government has not officially recognized any of the survivors as victims under the law, which would give them and their families the right to government support.

When she noticed the unusual procedures, Cano sought out victims in Mexico City hospitals to offer them representation to guarantee their access to government support.

"The victims' commission and the National Human Rights Commission have been asleep on the job," she says, adding that they have had virtually no contact with human rights lawyers or victims.

Instead, the National Migration Institute has unofficially taken control of the victims and survivors' families. According to Cano and other human rights lawyers consulted by NPR, there has never been a case of the agency accused of crimes like this directly involved in the care of victims of its alleged crimes.

"It is traumatizing for victims to have to face every day the institution that left them locked in the cell to die," she says.

The National Migration Institute, the victims' commission and the human rights commission did not respond to NPR's questions.

Commissioner Garduño told reports in May he could sleep peacefully after the fire because he was "1,800 kilometers away when it happened" and therefore couldn't have changed anything.

Cano says the Mexican government has tried to prevent human rights lawyers from contacting survivors and families of the deceased. Instead, she has worked with the Venezuelan, Honduran and Salvadoran consulates to contact victims. She's representing eight survivors.

"We suspect that what the administration wants is to reduce the political impact of this tragedy and close the case as quickly as possible," she says.

Cano claims the government has created an environment in which migrant survivors of the fire will continue to feel unsafe or unprotected in Mexico, and will choose to try to go to the U.S. or return to their home country.

Mexico's migration problems run deeper than Juárez

A view of the migrant detention center where at least 39 people died due to a fire, in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, on March 28.
/ Christian Thompson/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images
Christian Thompson/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images
A view of the migrant detention center where at least 39 people died due to a fire, in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, on March 28.

Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador has an inconsistent track record on migration, critics say. He has recently said the world has taken the "wrong approach" with militarized migration deterrence. "Causes must be addressed, we must go to the roots, to drop the politics and think about rights above ideology," he says.

However, López Obrador at times has deployed nearly 30,000 National Guard troops in addition to migration agents to stop migrants going toward the U.S. On the ground, migrants' report to human rights groups frequent robbery, extortion and kidnappings by Mexican officials, including migration agents and soldiers.

Additionally, López Obrador's appointment of Garduño — a former federal prisons chief — and refusal to dismiss him after the fire have generated controversy, especially after the president called him "upright and hardworking."

"What we're seeing is scandalous," says Emilio Álvarez Icaza, a senator who is on the congressional oversight committee monitoring developments from the Ciudad Juárez fire. "[Garduño] has refused to resign and has instead petitioned a judge to drop the criminal charge and find a friendly solution."

To have his charge dropped, Garduño told reporters outside a courtroom that he offered to personally pay to repair the burned building but did not offer to compensate victims. Instead, the commissioner publicly announced the compensation victims' families could expect to receive from the Mexican government, approximately $70,000 each on average, even though he does not have the legal authority over the government's compensation of victims. The victims' commission later confirmed this amount.

Garduño's statements are meant to demonstrate the agency's speedy, generous compensation of victims, analysts say, but go against government procedure — and may have a perverse effect.

"Victims are from countries with high rates of crime and many were fleeing persecution, so publicly announcing large compensation sums can put them and their families at huge risk," says Cano. "It's completely unforgivable."

On Wednesday, Mexican Interior Secretary María Luisa Alcalde said the government was preparing "comprehensive restitution" for victims and defended Garduño's leadership on immigration, saying Mexico respects the presumption of innocence.

Cano and Álvarez both claim Garduño's actions are the sign of an agency unwilling to reform or be transparent.

"This isn't just about giving victims money, it's about making sure this doesn't happen again," Cano says. "Sadly, detention centers have long been like this, completely inhumane."

In 2020, migrants lit sleeping pads on fire in protest over COVID conditions at a detention center in Tenosique, near Mexico's southern border with Guatemala. One migrant died and 14 were injured.

"How the hell did they not put measures in place after this?" asks Cano. "The fire in Ciudad Juárez never should have been able to happen."

This happened because [President] López Obrador decided to accept the pressure from the Trump and now Biden administrations to contain migrants, and in turn, the government systematically abuses them.

Cano says the migration institute has long ignored calls from civil society and the United Nations to reform detention conditions.

Senator Álvarez says the problems run deeper.

"This didn't happen just because a guard didn't open the gate," the lawmaker says. "This happened because López Obrador decided to accept the pressure from the Trump and now Biden administrations to contain migrants, and in turn, the government systematically abuses them."

U.S. granted him humanitarian stay

Mexican and U.S. immigration officials met on Sept. 22 to discuss joint migration deterrence efforts, one of dozens of high-level migration meetings between the two countries in recent years. In June, U.S. Ambassador to Mexico Ken Salazar toured migration facilities in southern Mexico with the indicted Garduño and called Mexico "a crucial partner" on migration.

"Mexico is living through a tremendous human rights crisis and migration is a key part of that," says Álvarez.

Of the eight survivors Cano is representing, four have left Mexico and been granted humanitarian parole in the United States, including the Salvadoran man who lost two cousins.

"I just want to be in a safe country, somewhere I don't have to live in fear," he says.

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