Mexico closes 33 migrant detention centers amid investigation of deadly fire

By Kendal Blust
Published: Thursday, May 11, 2023 - 4:36pm
Updated: Friday, May 12, 2023 - 7:21am
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Mexico’s immigration agency says it is temporarily closing 33 migrant detention centers throughout the country after a fire killed 40 migrants in government custody in March.

The fire at a holding facility in Ciudad Juarez sparked an investigation by Mexico’s human rights commission. Now, provisional detention centers nationwide will remain closed pending inspections and a report on conditions.

"It could be a positive step, but it seems a lot like it could just be for show," said Tyler Mattiace, the Mexico researcher with Human Rights Watch. "The reason I say that is because the conditions in all kinds of detention centers in Mexico is not something that’s new information to anyone. The poor conditions there have been well documented by human rights groups. They’ve been well documented by the human rights commission for years."

With one of the largest immigration detention systems in the world, Mexico detained some 450,000 people last year, often in crowded, unsanitary conditions. Often, there are not enough beds for people to sleep on, Mattiace said.

"We’re talking about previous cases where people have died in fires," he said. "We’re talking about previous case where people have been refused medical treatment and gotten sick and died. We’re talking about overcrowding and lack of access to food, water, medicine, natural light."

Mexico has a total of 66 immigration detention centers, including the 33 provisional cites, which Mattiace said are generally more rudimentary. But while the conditions in those centers are poor, closing them could increase overcrowding, he said. And he’s concerned that new policies being implemented with the end of Title 42 could increase detentions as more people arrive at Mexico's increasingly militarized southern border or are sent back from the United States.

"Again we’re seeing this build up of people in Mexico," he said. "And if Mexico is going to be detaining more people, that means even more overcrowding, even more bad conditions."

The 33 detention centers that are being closed can hold up to 1,306 people, according Mexico's immigration agency. Of those, 14 are considered "type A" facilities where people can be housed for up to 48 hours, and 19 are "type B" facilities where people can stay for up to seven days.

Juarez Fire

On March 27, 40 migrants died and 25 others were injured in a fire inside one of Mexico's provisional detention centers in Ciudad Juarez, just across the border from El Paso.

Several people are being investigated in the case, including Francisco Garduño, head of Mexico's National Immigration Institute. He was charged with what is known as improper exercise of public authority. However, he remains at his post.

Migrant advocates have been demanding closer scrutiny on the case, particularly after a video of the fire was released showing guards inside the detention center leaving as the building filled with flames and smoke without opening the cell to allow migrants to escape.

"I think what activists and victims really want to know is what happened here," said Mattiace.

There are accusations that employees at the detention center were ordered not to open the gates to release migrants after the fire started in their cell, he said. Others claim that guards didn't have the key.

"It's important that prosecutors figure out what actually happened and not just find someone to blame so that the government can try to put this in the past," Mattiace said.

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