Mexico’s immigration agency chief to be charged in fire that killed 40 migrants in detention center

Mexico’s top immigration official will face criminal charges in a fire that killed 40 migrants in Ciudad Juarez last month, with federal prosecutors saying he was remiss in not preventing the disaster despite earlier indications of problems at his agency’s detention centers.

The decision to file charges against Francisco Garduño, the head of Mexico’s National Immigration Institute, was announced late Tuesday by the federal Attorney General’s Office.

It followed repeated calls from within Mexico, and from some Central American nations, not to stop the case at the five low-level officials, guards and a Venezuelan migrant already facing homicide charges.

Anger initially focused on two guards who were seen fleeing the March 27 fire without unlocking the cell door to allow the migrants to escape. But President Andrés Manuel López Obrador said earlier Tuesday that they didn’t have the keys.

Guatemala Migrants
Foreign Minister officers hold portraits beside the coffins of Guatemalan migrants whose remains arrived at the La Aurora Air Force Base in Guatemala City on April 11, 2023. The Mexican Air Force transported the bodies of 17 migrants who died in a fire at an immigration detention center in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico on March 27, 2023.

Moises Castillo / AP

The Attorney General’s Office said several other officers of Garduño’s agency will also face charges for failing to carry out their duties, but prosecutors didn’t specify which charges or identify the officials.

Prosecutors said the case showed a “pattern of irresponsibility.”

Prosecutors said that after a fire at another detention center in the Gulf coast state of Tabasco killed one person and injured 14 in 2020, the immigration agency knew there were problems that needed to be corrected, but alleged they failed to act.

There have long been complaints about corruption and bad conditions at Mexico’s migrant detention facilities, but they’ve never been seriously addressed.

López Obrador’s comments about the guards in last month’s fire in the border city of Ciudad Juarez came on the same day that the bodies of 17 Guatemala migrants and six Hondurans killed in the blaze were flown back to their home countries.

It was unclear what effect López Obrador’s comments might have on the trial of the guards, who were detained previously over the fire.

“The door was closed, because the person who had the keys wasn’t there,” López Obrador said.

A video from a security camera inside the facility shows guards walking away when the fire started in late March inside the cell holding migrants.

Funeral and burial of a Salvadoran Migrant who deceased in Mexico
A funeral of Salvadoran migrant Jose Pedro Rivera Garcia, 23, victim of a deadly fire in an immigration detention center in Ciudad Juarez on March 27, was held in the town of Nueva Trinidad, in Chalatenango, El Salvador, on April 11, 2023. 

Alex Pena / Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

The guards are seen hurrying away as smoke fills the facility and they didn’t appear to make any effort to release the migrants.

Three Mexican immigration officials, a guard and a Venezuelan migrant are being held for investigation in connection with the fire. They face homicide charges.

The migrant allegedly set fire to foam mattresses at the detention center to protest what he apparently thought were plans to move or deport the migrants.

In Guatemala City, relatives of the victims gathered at an air force base with flowers and photos of the deceased to mark their return.

“My son, my love,” a female voice could be heard calling out, amid sobs from those present as the coffins were unloaded and placed in a line, and relatives were allowed to approach them.

Mexican military planes carried the bodies six migrants to Honduras and 17 to Guatemala. Authorities say 19 of the 40 dead were from Guatemala but two bodies were still in the process of having their identities confirmed.

An additional 11 Guatemalans were injured in the fire.

Guatemalan Foreign Minister Mario Búcaro accompanied the bodies, which were to be taken overland to their hometowns in nine different provinces.

Some bodies of Salvadoran migrants were returned to El Salvador last week.

So far, 31 bodies have been sent back to their home countries.

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