Migrants fearing deportation set mattresses ablaze at an immigration detention centre, starting a fire that left at least 40 dead, Mexico’s president has said.
Hours after the fire broke out late on Monday, rows of bodies were laid out under silver sheets outside the facility in Ciudad Juarez, which is across from El Paso, Texas, and a major crossing point for migrants.
At least 40 people died and 29 were injured and are in “delicate-serious” condition, according to the National Immigration Institute. There were 68 men from Central and South America held in the facility at the time of the fire.
Mexican president Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador called the incident unfortunate and said the director of the country’s immigration agency was on the scene.
“They never imagined that this would cause this terrible misfortune,” Mr Lopez Obrador said.
Tensions between authorities and migrants had apparently been running high in recent weeks in Ciudad Juarez, where shelters are full of people waiting for opportunities to cross into the US or who have requested asylum there and are waiting for a decision.
More than 30 migrant shelters and other advocacy organisations published an open letter on March 9 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, complaining that municipal police were questioning people in the street about their immigration status without cause.
The high level of frustration in Ciudad Juarez was evident earlier this month when hundreds of mostly Venezuelan migrants acting on false rumours that the United States would allow them to enter the country tried to force their way across one of the international bridges to El Paso. US authorities blocked their attempts.
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.
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. And the country’s immigration centres have seen protests and riots from time to time.
Mostly Venezuelan migrants rioted inside an immigration centre in Tijuana in October 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.