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Dozens of migrants perish in fire at migrant center in Ciudad Juarez

Mexico’s president said Tuesday the fire started after some migrants set mattresses on fire inside the facility.

More than three dozen migrants were killed late Monday at a migrant facility near the international bridge that connects Ciudad Juarez to El Paso.

At least 39 people died at an immigration processing center in the city’s downtown. The fire began after some migrants set mattresses on fire to protest what they feared would be their deportation, the Associated Press reported early Tuesday.

By Tuesday morning, sadness and shock gave way to anger and frustration as some migrants rejected the idea that the fire was set in protest.

Luis Carlos Carrillo, 34, a Venezuelan migrant who’s been in the border city for two weeks, said that Mexican immigration officials seize detainees’ belongings so it seemed suspect that someone could have started a fire.

“They take all your belongings. So how could that happen?” he said. “For me, I don’t think it was a Venezuelan, but we don’t have all the facts.”

The lack of updated information added to their frustration. The only government presence was Mexican National Guard soldiers donning masks and assault rifles as they gazed onto the crowd of migrants and reporters from behind the closed gates of the immigration center.

Local and state Mexican police officers were also on the scene as the crowd at times blocked traffic. Meanwhile, helicopters operated by U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents buzzed overhead on the north side of the Rio Grande.

Amid the chaos, Carla Soto, 35, said she was waiting for more information on the deceased. She said she was worried about some of her fellow Venezuelans who she said might have been rounded up Monday night and sent to the holding facility.

“I haven’t heard from them. But how are they going to be able to [identify] someone if they are burnt?” she said.

Soto added that frustration has been building in Ciudad Juarez because of constant harassment from local police and the delays in processing asylum applications by U.S. officials. Soto said she applied for an asylum interview through an app called CBP One, which allows migrants to submit biometric information through a smartphone.

But the process has been plagued with technical issues, which have been compounded by spotty internet access in some parts of Mexico.

“Every day it’s another problem,” she said.

Multiple agencies responded to the fire at the facility, and officials began removing bodies wrapped in thermal blankets outside the facility, KTEP reported overnight.

According to Mexican authorities, 68 men, from South and Central America, were being held at the facility. At least 29 were injured and transported to local hospitals, according to the statement. The agency added it was working with the consular authorities from the various countries to identify the migrants killed.

The Mexican city has been dealing with an influx of migrants from South and Central America who make Ciudad Juarez their last stop in Latin America before trying to claim asylum in Mexico. But policies kept in place by the Biden administration, including the continuation of a public health policy known as Title 42 that rapidly expels asylum seekers and returns them to Mexico, have left thousands stranded in Mexico.

Earlier this month hundreds of migrants from Venezuela rushed to the center of the downtown bridge and demanded entry into the United States. The migrants were denied entry and eventually returned to Ciudad Juarez, but the incident highlighted the rising tension between migrants and Mexican authorities.

For some residents of Ciudad Juarez, the tragedy was just another chapter in a decades-long saga that’s included the murders or disappearances of women that date back to the 1990s and a cartel war that’s seen thousands killed since 2008.

But that grim history didn’t deter Isabel Aguilera from standing with the migrants and supporting their calls for accountability.  

“I am here in solidarity with all migrants,” she said.

When asked about the negative attitudes some Juarenses hold toward the thousands of migrants that have descended on her city, she simply said. “The only thing I can tell you is that we’re all human beings.”

Aaron Montes of KTEP contributed to reporting.