Head of Mexican immigration agency charged after fatal fire

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FILE - People take part in a vigil for the victims of a fire at an immigration detention center that killed dozens, outside the detention center in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, March 28, 2023. Two guards who fled a fire that killed 40 migrants in a locked Mexican detention center did not have keys to the cell door, Mexicos president said Tuesday, April 11, 2023. (AP Photo/Christian Chavez, File)

MEXICO CITY – The head of Mexico’s National Immigration Institute will face criminal charges for a fire that killed 40 migrants in a locked cell, the federal Attorney General’s Office said Tuesday night.

The office said in a statement that the head of the immigration agency, Francisco Garduño, was criminally remiss in not preventing the fire, despite earlier incidents showed the situation at the country's migrant detention centers needed correcting.

Several other officers of the agency will also face charges for failing to carry out their duties, the statement said, but prosecutors did not explain what specific charges or identify the officials.

Prosecutors said the case showed a “pattern of irresponsibility,” their statement released just hours after Mexico's president said two guards seen fleeing when the fire broke out did not have keys to the cell door.

The press office of the immigration agency that Garduño heads did immediately respond to messages and phone calls requesting comment.

Prosecutors said that after a fire at another detention center in the Gulf coast state of Tabasco killed one person and injured 14 in 2020, the immigration agency knew there were problems which needed to be corrected. but alleged they failed to act.

There have long been complaints about corruption and bad conditions at Mexico's migrant dentention facilities.

President Andrés Manuel López Obrador's comments about the guards in last month's fire in Ciudad Juarez came on the same day that the bodies of 17 Guatemala migrants and six Hondurans killed in the fire were flown back to their home countries.

It was unclear what effect López Obrador's comments might have on the trial of the guards, who were detained previously over the fire, which shocked the country.

“The door was closed, because the person who had the keys wasn't there,” López Obrador said.

A video from a security camera inside the facility shows guards walking away when the fire started in late March inside the cell holding migrants.

The guards are seen hurrying away as smoke fills the facility, and they did not appear to make any effort to release the migrants.

Three Mexican immigration officials, a guard and a Venezuelan migrant are being held for investigation in connection with the fire. They face homicide charges.

The migrant allegedly set fire to foam mattresses at the detention center to protest what he apparently thought were plans to move or deport the migrants.

In Guatemala City, relatives of the victims gathered at an air force base with flowers and photos of the deceased to mark their return.

“My son, my love,” a female voice could be heard calling out, amid sobs from those present as the coffins were unloaded and placed in a line, and relatives were allowed to approach them.

Mexican military planes carried the bodies six migrants to Honduras and 17 to Guatemala. Authorities say 19 of the 40 dead were from Guatemala, but two bodies were still in the process of having their identities confirmed.

An additional 11 Guatemalans were injured in the fire.

Guatemalan Foreign Minister Mario Búcaro accompanied the bodies, which were to be taken overland to their hometowns in nine different provinces.

Some bodies of Salvadoran migrants were returned to El Salvador last week. So far, 31 bodies have been sent back to their home countries.