WORLD

Survivors of Mexico’s worst migrant detention center fire stuck in limbo, unable to support families

Jul 27, 2023, 1:29 PM

FILE - Migrants, mostly from Venezuela, hold photos of those who died in a fire at a Mexican immigr...

FILE - Migrants, mostly from Venezuela, hold photos of those who died in a fire at a Mexican immigration detention center, behind, during a prayer vigil outside the center in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, April, 27, 2023. Four months after a fire in a Mexican immigration detention center at the border killed 40 migrants, some survivors are living in limbo at a Mexico City hotel, recovering from their injuries and awaiting the prosecution of their captors. (AP Photo/Christian Chavez, File)
Credit: ASSOCIATED PRESS

(AP Photo/Christian Chavez, File)

MEXICO CITY (AP) — Four months after a fire at an immigration detention center near the United States border, eight badly burned survivors are stuck in their rooms at a Mexico City hotel.

They eat in the hotel restaurant and have regular medical check-ups and make calls home.

The Mexican immigration agency covers the daily costs and medical care for survivors of the fire that killed 40 migrants. Advocates call that a conflict of interest for an agency whose officials now face criminal charges, including negligence and even homicide, in Mexico’s worst migrant detention center fire.

Before the fire, some migrants incurred large debts to the smugglers who were supposed to deliver them to the United States. There, the migrants were supposed to immediately begin working to pay off the debts and support their families.

The survivors of the March 27 fire now feel trapped, with no money to move. Seeking U.S. asylum is a lengthy process but the migrants say that none of them want to return to home. They have humanitarian visas from Mexico, but their injuries don’t allow them to work.

Among the eight survivors is a 25-year-old Guatemalan former security guard. He requested anonymity because he fears the Mexican government could cut off his assistance.

He had been picked up by immigration agents as soon as he arrived to Ciudad Juarez on the day of the fire.

Packed into a large holding cell with dozens of others, a small group of migrants began to protest the conditions. Two have been charged with lighting the highly flammable foam mattresses in the cell and security video showed that the area filled with thick smoke in a matter of seconds.

Despite their cries for help, the guards fled and no one opened the cell. Authorities have also filed criminal charges against Mexican officials and a private security guard over their involvement in the case.

“It looked like it was out of a movie,” the young Guatemalan said, a mask covering part of his burned face, and bandages wrapped around his right forearm. His hand was amputated.

“From one moment to the next your life was changing,” he said.

He tried to escape the smoke and flames with other migrants in the bathroom. The trickle of water from the shower didn’t allow them to fill even a bucket to fight the fire. He only managed to wet his shirt before he saw the ceiling ignite and felt flames touch his face.

Firefighters eventually opened a hole in the wall where he was. He remembers seeing the opening and running toward a man with a mask who was pulling someone else out, but then lost consciousness.

“Thank God, I fell in front of him,” he said. He only remembered the sound of sirens and not being able to breathe.

He was hospitalized for a month and half, intubated for some of that time and fighting an infection. He regained consciousness in Mexico City. His father had come and was relieved to see him even in that state, because initially his son’s name was on the list of fatalities, and he thought he was coming to recover his remains.

The head of Mexico’s immigration agency, Francisco Garduño, is among eight officials charged in relation to the fire. He has remained in his post pending the outcome. The Guatemalan and some, but not all, of the other survivors from Honduras, El Salvador and Venezuela have been called to give statements to prosecutors.

Garduño and another high-ranking agency official were charged with illicitly carrying out their duties and not protecting those in their custody. Others, including guards at the facility, face homicide charges. After the fire, the agency closed a number of its detention centers and transferred migrants out of others. While there was early talk of reforming how the agency operates, nothing else concrete has happened.

Eduardo Rojas, a lawyer from the Foundation for Justice, which is providing legal counsel to the survivors said it is a blatant conflict of interest because, “the same institution connected to the crime is the one directly in charge of attending to the victims.”

The migrants could leave the hotel, but they felt like they were under constant surveillance. If they went out (authorities) were immediately looking for them,” Rojas said. Some survivors were pressured by authorities to not accept representation from NGOs like his, warning them in front of lawyers that they would lose compensation for their injuries, he said.

“The same institution connected to the crime is the one directly in charge of attending to the victims,” Rojas said.

A spokesperson for the agency denied that the survivors were under surveillance. In total, the agency has provided 21 humanitarian visas to survivors and 26 more to their relatives. About $5 million has initially been budgeted for reparations to the victims and their families, but that could be increased, the spokesperson said.

Rojas’ Guatemalan client avoids criticizing anyone. He was not initially told about the prosecutions when he got out of the hospital in May. He wasn’t called to give a statement until June. He feels like his life has been put on pause.

“We can move, but it isn’t a normal life,” he said. His father – among the relatives the government brought to Mexico to be with the victims – has had his own life interrupted, removing another breadwinner from the family.

Now the young Guatemalan waits for a prosthesis and practices writing with his left hand.

“Not being complete changed my life,” he said. He worries that he won’t be able to find work in Guatemala and that it would be difficult in the United States too, even though he still wants to try.

He wants to see his wife and their 9-month old daughter, whom he left behind in April.

He had quit his job as a security guard and paid $19,000 to a smuggler who promised to get him to Chicago without any problems.

“When you leave your country you know about the dangers in the street, the kidnappings, but not the dangers from the people guarding you. I never, never imagined that,” he said.

He keeps replaying the last conversation he had with his mother before the fire. He called her from the detention center to tell her he had been caught, but told her not to worry because he was in immigration custody.

“The most mistaken word in my life was to say I was OK there,” he remembers.

World

Associated Press

Microsoft users worldwide report widespread outages affecting banks, airlines and broadcasters

WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) — Microsoft users worldwide, including banks and airlines, reported widespread outages on Friday, hours after the technology company said it was gradually fixing an issue affecting access to Microsoft 365 apps and services. The cause, exact nature and scale of the outage was unclear. Microsoft appeared to suggest in its X […]

18 hours ago

Associated Press

Espionage trial of US journalist Evan Gershkovich in Russia reaches closing arguments

YEKATERINBURG, Russia (AP) — Court officials said closing arguments began Friday in the trial of Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich, who faces charges of spying that he, the Journal and the U.S. government have vehemently denied. U.S. officials and The Wall Street Journal have denounced the trial that began last month as a sham […]

20 hours ago

FILE - President Alexander Lukashenko of Belarus gives a speech during a military parade in Minsk, ...

Associated Press

Leader of Belarus marks 30 years in power after crushing all dissent and cozying up to Moscow

TALLINN, Estonia (AP) — For three decades, European leaders have come and gone by the dozens, but Alexander Lukashenko remains in absolute control of Belarus. His longevity is due to a mixture of harshly silencing all dissent, reverting to Soviet-style economic controls and methods, and cozying up to Russia, even as he sometimes flirted with […]

21 hours ago

Associated Press

US Treasury sanctions Sierra Leone man for allegedly smuggling migrants into the United States

MEXICO CITY (AP) — The U.S. Treasury Department announced sanctions Thursday on a man from Sierra Leone for allegedly smuggling thousands of migrants from Asia and Africa into the United States. The ring allegedly run by Abdul Karim Conteh provided false documents and drove migrants to the border and offered advice on how to cross, […]

1 day ago

Rory McIlroy of Northern Ireland reacts as he walks from the 18th green following his opening round...

Associated Press

McIlroy, DeChambeau stumble badly out of the gates at British Open

TROON, Scotland (AP) — So much for the British Open being one last stand for Rory McIlroy in the majors this year. His best hope now is getting beyond one more day. And he has company from U.S. Open champion Bryson DeChambeau. The protagonists from Pinehurst No. 2 were no match for a wind that […]

1 day ago

FILE - A brigade from the Electric Power Authority repairs distribution lines damaged by Hurricane ...

Associated Press

US announces $325 million in funding to boost Puerto Rico solar projects as power outages persist

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (AP) — The U.S. government announced Thursday that $325 million in federal funds will be available for solar and battery storage installations across Puerto Rico as the U.S. territory struggles with chronic power outages. The program, funded by the U.S. Department of Energy, will target community centers and healthcare facilities, as […]

1 day ago

Survivors of Mexico’s worst migrant detention center fire stuck in limbo, unable to support families