JUAREZ, Mexico (Border Report) – Mexican immigration agents and private security guards at a Juarez facility where 39 migrants died in a fire were told by a supervisor not to open the door when they reported the flames, a Juarez lawyer says.
Jorge Vazquez Campbell said a number of agents and guards came to his office on Tuesday to seek legal counsel out of fear of being made scapegoats for Monday night’s tragedy that has garnered international attention and prompted advocates to call for the U.S. to open its borders to asylum-seekers.
The president of Mexico said migrants fearing being deported to their countries of origin staged a protest Monday night that included setting at least one mattress on fire. Public Safety Minister Rosa Icela Rodriguez said eight people are under investigation in connection with the fatalities.
“They came here to ask protection to get a federal judge to issue a writ to protect them from an arbitrary arrest. They explained what happened and I got so upset that I filed the information” they relayed, Vazquez told Border Report on Tuesday.
Vazquez declined to identify the clients but on Wednesday he filed a voluntary deposition with the federal agency investigating the fire, disclosing the facts he was made aware of.
The sworn statement alleges that the regional director of the National Migration Institute instructed agents and security guards the night of the fire “not to open the doors under any circumstance” to the detainees.
“I’m filing a complaint giving evidence that the responsible person for these homicides is the legal representative of immigration in the state. They called him to tell him there was an uprising in the station and he told them, ‘leave them alone, and get out of the station,'” Vazquez said. “With that, the whole thing started burning up and killing them.”
The statement also alleges acts of corruption at the Mexican immigration agency the lawyer says include releasing detainees for a $500 fee and coercing others through threats not to petition for a free, lawful release.
Vazquez said he asked federal prosecutors to secure telephone records of INM officials the night of the fire to see who made or received telephone calls from the facility. “The government must conduct a professional investigation regardless of who is involved. They cannot point to security guards making $50 a week and blame them for everything. They are remiss in having abandoned (the migrants). They were cowards, but they did not have the keys,” the lawyer said.
Border Report reached out to Gen. Salvador Gonzalez Guerrero, head of the INM in the state of Chihuahua, for comment on Thursday morning. INM staff in Chihuahua City said he was in Juarez on Thursday and referred reporters to the INM office there. Three calls to the INM in Juarez went unanswered and an automated message said, “there is no one to take your call.”
Vazquez, who heads a foundation that provides legal assistance to refugees, said the agents and guards who came to him would not have been able to open the cell doors or attempt to put out the fire on Monday night. That’s because only one INM agent had the keys and there were no fire extinguishers at the center.
Still, the person who had the keys apparently allowed the doors to the women’s cell to be open, and 15 female migrants were able to escape the fire unharmed. “If they could let out the women, why did they not let out the men?” he asked.
Vazquez said the INM searches detainees when they arrive at the Juarez immigration offices and confiscates anything that could be used to start a fire, such as matches and lighters. However, he said migrants in the past have accused INM staff of “selling” them cigarettes and matches, and that would explain how they were able to set mattresses on fire.
The fire broke out inside a cell holding 68 men. Fifteen women were held in a different cell and seven INM agents and private security guards were at the facility, according to the latest information released by government officials.
Ten of the 29 injured migrants remain in serious to critical condition and on ventilators at Juarez hospitals. The government of Mexico so far has declined an offer by U.S. officials to have the injured treated at hospitals in El Paso, Texas.