At least 39 people were killed after a fire broke out at a migration center along the U.S.-Mexico border, officials said Tuesday.
Authorities believe the fire was caused by a protest initiated by some of the migrants detained at the center “after we think, they found out they’d be deported,” according to Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador.
Based on initial reports, migrants put small mattresses at the door of the shelter and set them on fire “as a form of protest,” López Obrador said in a press conference Tuesday morning. “They didn’t imagine this would cause this misfortune.”
The fire began after 9 p.m. Monday night at the migration center run by the National Migration Institute in Ciudad Juárez, the agency said in a statement. The migrants at the facility had been detained by authorities.
While the National Migration Institute did not immediately reveal the cause of the fire, the agency said that it “strongly rejects the acts that led to this tragedy,” without elaborating on what they may have been.
Dozens more were injured, with 29 people taken to four hospitals in “delicate-serious condition,” the agency said, adding that there were 68 men from Central America and South America — mainly Venezuela — being held in the facility at the time of the fire.
Authorities haven’t released any victims’ names, López Obrador said. But Guatemala’s General Directorate of Migration confirmed that 28 Guatemalans were among the fatal victims.
According to the country’s prosecutor general, which has initiated an investigation, 13 Hondurans, 12 Salvadorans, 12 Venezuelans, a Colombian and an Ecuadorian person were among the 68 people affected by the blaze.
Consular teams were also being engaged to further identify the deceased, officials said.
Francisco Garduño Yañez, commissioner of the National Migration Institute, was visiting the local hospitals where the injured migrants were taken “to check on their health conditions,” the agency said in a tweet.
The agency also said that immigration authorities “will provide Visitor Cards for Humanitarian Reasons to the injured and will cover the medical requirements for a speedy recovery.” Migrants who are seeking refugee status or were victims of a crime in Mexico can be eligible for these cards.
‘Smoke started coming out of everywhere’
Images showed rows of bodies laid out under silver sheets as rescue teams, firefighters and police responded to the scene.
Amid that chaos, a Venezuelan migrant, Viangly Infante, had been desperately looking for her 27-year-old husband, Eduard Caraballo.
Caraballo was one of many migrants who had been picked up by Mexican authorities on Monday and detained at the National Migration Institute center, Infante said.
“I was here since one in the afternoon waiting for the father of my children, and when 10 p.m. rolled around, smoke started coming out from everywhere,” she told Reuters.
Her husband did survive, Infante said, by dousing himself in water and pressing against a door.
Betty Camargo, state programs director at the Border Network for Human Rights (BNHR), a human rights advocacy and immigration reform organization in the U.S.-Mexico border, told NBC News she has been speaking to migrants who witnessed the fire at the center and the events that preceded it.
Authorities inside the center told some of the migrants detained they were being deported, even though many of them did have temporary work permits that get renewed every month, Camargo said. The migrants said they were told such permits would be taken away from them, she added.
Fernando García, BNHR’s executive director, said these migration centers “should not be detention centers.”
Most migration centers run by the National Migration Institute are meant to serve as a processing center and “a centro de alojamiento” (shelter) meant for short stays for migrants in transit.
This has prompted the organization to call for an investigation into the fire at the facility.
The facility, in Chihuahua state, is on the Mexico side of a bridge that connects Ciudad Juárez and El Paso.
Ciudad Juarez is a major crossing point for migrants trying to make the journey across the border to the United States.
Its shelters are full of migrants waiting for opportunities to cross or who are waiting out the asylum process.
In recent years, as Mexico has stepped up efforts to stem the flow of migration to the U.S. border under pressure from Washington, its National Immigration Institute has struggled with overcrowding in its facilities.