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Mexico opens homicide probe as number of migrants killed in blaze increases

People protest outside the National Institute of Migration in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico after a blaze at a Mexican migrant detention center killed 38 detained men. (Photo by Reuters)

Mexican authorities have announced a homicide probe against eight officials who face possible murder charges for the death of 38 migrants in a detention center, accusing them of doing nothing to evacuate the victims.

Eight people have been identified as allegedly responsible for the deaths that occurred late on Monday in the northern border city of Ciudad Juarez, Mexican Security Minister Rosa Icela Rodriguez told journalists at a briefing on Wednesday.

Prosecutors have identified two federal agents, a state migration officer, and five members of a private security firm who may be responsible for the deaths, Rodriguez said. A migrant had been accused of starting the fire, she added, without giving details about the person.

An investigation was opened “for the crime of homicide and damage to property” though other possible charges will be considered, Sara Irene Herrerias, a prosecutor specializing in human rights, said on Wednesday.

A short video circulating on social media on Tuesday – appearing to be security footage from inside the centre during the blaze – showed men kicking on the bars of a locked door as their cell filled with smoke and guards leaving as flames engulfed a cell with migrants locked inside.

The fire happened at the immigration detention facility in Ciudad Juarez, across the US border from El Paso, Texas, a major crossing point for migrants. At least 38 people died in the horrific blaze and 28 sustained severe injuries, the National Immigration Institute said.

Reports say that the detention facility housed 68 men from Central and South America at the time of the fire. Almost all were from Guatemala, Honduras, Venezuela and El Salvador.

“None of the public servants or the private security personnel took any action to open the door for the migrants who were inside,” Herrerias told reporters.

All the victims were male and Mexico’s government is under pressure to find out why they died after officials said female detainees at the centre were safely evacuated.

 “Who didn't let these people out? Clearly there is a serious crime,” Rodriguez said, adding the video was part of the investigation. “They weren't capable of opening a gate.”

Mexico’s President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador earlier vowed there would be “no impunity” over the tragedy in Ciudad Juarez.

Those found to have been responsible for “causing this painful tragedy will be punished in conformity with the law,” he added.

Authorities believe the fire was started by migrants setting alight mattresses in an act of protest when they discovered they would be deported.

Ciudad Juarez is one of the border towns where numerous undocumented migrants seeking refuge in the United States remain stranded.

The high level of frustration in Ciudad Juarez was already evident earlier this month when hundreds of mostly Venezuelan migrants tried to force their way across one of the international bridges to El Paso, acting on false rumors that the United States would allow them to enter the country. US authorities blocked their attempts.

According to a recent report by the International Organization for Migration (IOM), since 2014, some 7,661 migrants have died or disappeared en route to the US while 988 died in accidents or while traveling in difficult conditions. 

Under pressure from the United States, Mexico has agreed to accept the swelling numbers of migrants turned back by American authorities, and to take other measures to help control the crossings into the United States.

Rights groups have frequently flagged concerns about poor conditions and overcrowding in detention centers as the US and Mexico attempt to cope with record levels of border crossings at their shared frontier.

“As Mexico receives historic numbers of new asylum claims and the US continues to implement policies that push asylum seekers back into Mexico, humanitarian infrastructure in the country is increasingly strained and more people are stuck in highly vulnerable situations,” the International Rescue Committee said in a statement.

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