Mexican president deflects blame to US for mass-casualty fire at migrant detention center

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President of Mexico She promised to visit hospitals treating injured migrants in the border city of Ciudad Juarez Friday, where 39 men died in an immigrant detention center fire late Monday.

President Andrés Manuel López Obrador said he was personally devastated by Monday’s tragedy. But it appears he will bring a bit of new immigration policy with him during a visit Friday to Ciudad Juarez, across from the border. El Paso, Texas.

“I admit it hurt me a lot, it hurt me,” López Obrador said before the trip. “You tore my soul.” The president said the Ciudad Juarez fire was the second most painful moment of his administration, surpassed only by a 2019 pipeline fire in the central Mexican town of Tlahuelpan, which killed about 135 people.

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However, it did not cost him much politically.

Many residents of Mexican border towns mourned the deaths of immigrants in a smoking mattress fire, which some immigrants set in protest of perceived moves to deport them. But in Ciudad Juarez, many weary residents of immigrants from Central America and Venezuela beg for change on street corners and block border bridges.

López Obrador’s visit to Ciudad Juárez was marked by outrage over the deaths. A group of immigrants and their supporters tried to block the president’s convoy, which led to clashes on Friday afternoon.

Eager to curry favor with the United States, López Obrador made life difficult for immigrants seeking to cross Mexico to reach the US border. He assigned tens of thousands of Army soldiers and National Guard officers to keep the immigrants, and allowed the United States to return immigrants from Venezuela, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Cuba to Mexico.

But the United States did little to help Mexico house or integrate returned immigrants.

Mexico's President, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, said Friday that he blames external factors for the deaths of 39 migrants in a detention center fire.

Mexico’s President, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, said Friday that he blames external factors for the deaths of 39 migrants in a detention center fire. (AP Photo/Fernando Llano)

Lopez Obrador lashed out Friday, saying the United States should spend more on economic development in Latin America to prevent migrants from leaving their homes, rather than sending military aid to Ukraine. He suggested that the United States provide direct cash support payments to families in the region.

“How do you compare what the United States government sends to Central America, with the $30 and $35 billion it spends buying weapons for Ukraine?” Lopez Obrador said.

This deadlock — with federal governments in Mexico and the United States refusing to touch the immigration issue — often leaves the situation up to local leaders, many of whom view immigrants as a nuisance.

Federal Public Safety Minister Rosa Aisila Rodriguez said the government would close the detention center where the fire occurred.

Lopez Obrador said on Friday that he will set up a commission to ensure the protection of the human rights of migrants. He said the committee would be chaired by longtime immigrant activist W Roman Catholic Pastor Alejandro Solalende. However, it was not clear what powers the committee would have.

Meanwhile, López Obrador said “I will focus mainly on the medical side. What interests me is the treatment of the wounded.” Mexico has rejected a US offer to help provide medical treatment for the injured, most of whom suffered from smoke inhalation, saying they were too ill to move.

Rodriguez said Thursday that 24 migrants remain in the hospital, all of whom appear to be in serious or critical condition. It said four immigrants had been demobilized.

The president said a fire at an immigrant facility in Mexico killed 38 people.

The migrant accused of starting the fire suffered only minor injuries and has already been released from hospital, presumably in custody.

This immigrant, along with three officials from the National Institute of Migration and two private security guards in the detention center, faces charges of murder and causing injury.

Video from a security camera inside the Ciudad Juarez facility showed guards walking away when the fire broke out inside the cell holding the migrants and making no attempt to free them. It was not clear whether these guards had the keys to the cell doors.

But there have been years of complaints about poor conditions and human rights abuses in Mexico’s migrant detention facilities, including inadequate ventilation, food and water, and overflowing toilets.

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Moreover, there is mounting evidence of corruption throughout Mexico’s immigration system, with everyone from lawyers and immigration officials to guards taking bribes to allow migrants to get out of detention.

Not much has been done yet to address these concerns.

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