Tuesday, June 25, 2024

Immigration chief to face charges over fatal detention center fire

The federal Attorney General’s Office (FGR) announced Tuesday that it has commenced criminal proceedings against Mexico’s top immigration official in connection with the March 27 fire in a Ciudad Juárez detention center that claimed the lives of 40 migrants. 

National Immigration Institute (INM) director Francisco Garduño and the NM’s general director of immigration control and verification Antonio Molina Díaz will face charges that both allegedly committed “criminal conduct” by “failing to fulfill their duty to supervise, protect and provide security to the people and facilities” under their control, the FGR said in a statement.  

Garduño looks on at a crying couple after the fire in Chihuahua.
Garduño, seen here in the aftermath of the fire, currently remains at the helm of the INM. (@fgymexico/Twitter)

They could be imprisoned for up to three years if found guilty on charges of improper exercise of public service. 

The FGR said that Federal Auditor’s Office (ASF) reports in recent years have detailed “with complete clarity the mistakes and oversights that continue to be committed at the INM” even after a March 2020 fire at a detention center in Tenosique, Tabasco, in which one migrant died and 14 others were injured.  

The National Human Rights Commission published a report in the wake of the 2020 fire that said that officials failed to follow “safety measures that are essential and obligatory” in such scenarios.  

The Attorney General’s Office said that the shortcomings outlined in the ASF reports indicate an unrectified “pattern of irresponsibility” at the INM, “which has been the cause of these regrettable events.”    

Emergency responders outside immigration detention center
According to reports, a migrant allegedly started the fire by setting mattresses alight after officials informed detainees that they would be deported. (Juan Ortega/Cuartoscuro)

The FGR said it has also opened criminal cases against four other public servants who are “directly linked to conduct that caused homicides and injuries” among detained migrants. It did not specify the positions they hold.  

The announcement of the criminal proceedings against Garduño and the other officials comes after the arrest of three INM agents and a security guard who worked at the Ciudad Juárez detention center, as well as a Venezuelan man who allegedly started the fire by setting mattresses alight when he and other migrants were informed that they were going to be deported or moved to another immigration facility.  

The five, who were arrested a few days after the fire, face charges of homicide and causing injury and are in preventive detention as they await trial. 

A video posted to social media showed that the male migrants being held in Ciudad Juárez were left in a locked section of the detention center despite the fire. A security guard and an INM agent appeared to evacuate the building without unlocking the door to the section where the migrants were detained. 

Garduño visits fire victims in hospital.
The aftermath of the fire left all those detained in the INM center either in hospital or dead. (@fgymexico/Twitter)

President López Obrador said Tuesday that “the person who had the key” was not at the detention center when the fire began.  

In its statement, the FGR said that the INM and the private security company in question signed contracts that were awarded without the required tendering process, “generating costs double what is paid in the public sector for those same services.”

The FGR also said that the INM and the security company had not fulfilled their “training, control and supervision obligations” at the Ciudad Juárez detention center. 

Garduño currently remains at the INM’s helm despite the prospect that he will stand trial in connection with last month’s deadly blaze. 

López Obrador, who has pledged there will be no impunity in the case, defended his immigration chief at his morning news conference on Wednesday, saying that his performance as INM director has generally been good.   

“I’ve known him for many years, he has worked with me,” he added. 

Garduño, who took over as INM head in 2019 after the resignation of former chief Tonatiuh Guillén López, was Mexico City’s transport minister when López Obrador was mayor of the capital between 2000 and 2005. 

The government of El Salvador demanded his resignation in the wake of the Ciudad Júarez fire, in which Salvadorean migrants, as well as detainees from Guatemala, Honduras, Venezuela, and Colombia, died. 

Huge numbers of migrants have crossed into Mexico at the country’s southern border in recent years, putting immense pressure on the INM, the Mexican Commission for Refugee Assistance and migrant shelters. 

The federal government has also faced pressure from U.S. authorities to do more to stop migrants reaching the Mexico-U.S. border. Hundreds of thousands of migrants have been detained and deported since the current federal government took office in late 2018.  

The intended final destination of most migrants is the United States, but many find themselves stranded in southern Mexico as they await authorization to travel through the country legally, or in northern border cities as they wait for an opportunity to seek asylum in the U.S.

Many of the men killed or injured in the Ciudad Juárez detention center fire were reportedly detained while begging or washing car windows at traffic lights in the northern border city.  

With reports from El Financiero, Reforma and El Universal 

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