Mexico's president claims migrants lit mattresses in fire that killed 39 people

Ambulances and rescue teams outside the immigration centre in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico. Credit: AP

Mexico’s president has claimed migrants fearing deportation set fire to mattresses in an immigration detention centre near the US border, starting a blaze that killed 39 people and injured dozens more.

The fire in a dormitory at the migrant processing centre in Ciudad Juárez, northern Mexico, was one of the deadliest incidents ever at an immigration facility in the country.

Karla Samayoa, spokeswoman for Guatemala’s Foreign Ministry, said Mexican authorities had informed them that more than two dozen of the migrants who died appeared to be from Guatemala.

Around 30 people were injured, according to the National Immigration Institute, which said there were 68 men from Central and South America held in the facility at the time of the fire.

Andrés Manuel Lopez Obrador stands on a stage from where he gives his daily press conference at the National Palace in Mexico City. Credit: AP

President Andrés Manuel López Obrador said the blaze was started by migrants inside the facility in protest after learning they would be deported. “They never imagined that this would cause this terrible misfortune,” he said, adding that the director of country’s immigration agency was on the scene.

The national immigration agency said on Tuesday that it “energetically rejects the actions that led to this tragedy” without any further explanation of what those actions might have been.

There has been no official statement about what may have caused the blaze, which broke out in Ciudad Juárez, the Mexican city located just across the Rio Grande river from El Paso, Texas.

Images of the aftermath of the incident showed lifeless bodies on the ground, some covered by silver thermal blankets.

The bodies of migrants lay covered after a deadly fire broke out at an immigration detention centre in Ciudad Juárez. Credit: AP

In Ciudad Juárez, shelters are full of people waiting for opportunities to cross into the United States, and those who have requested asylum there and are waiting out the process.

More than 30 migrant shelters and other advocacy organisations published an open letter earlier this month that complained of a criminalisation of migrants and asylum seekers in the city.

It accused authorities of abuse and using excessive force in rounding up migrants, arguing that police were questioning people in the street about their immigration status without justification.

In recent years, as Mexico has stepped up efforts to stem the flow migration to the US border under pressure from the American government, the agency has struggled with overcrowding in its facilities. Mostly Venezuelan migrants rioted inside an immigration centre in Tijuana in October, in an incident that had to be controlled by police and National Guard troops.

In November, dozens of migrants rioted in Mexico’s largest detention centre in the southern city of Tapachula near the border with Guatemala. No one died in either incident.

The blaze in Ciudad Juarez is one of the deadliest incidents involving migrants in Mexico in recent decades. In December 2021, at least 55 people were killed after a cargo truck - packed with migrants - flipped over in southern Mexico.

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