CIUDAD JUAREZ, Mexico — In the aftermath of a deadly fire that killed 38 people in a Juárez migrant shelter Monday night, large groups of protesters filled the street in front of the burned-out complex and are challenging the government’s account that the deadly blaze was started by protesting migrants.
“I tell you all, raise your voice! We have to stay here, nobody moves from here, we are going to unite, stand on a war-footing,” shouted David Nieto, a 33-year-old migrant from Venezuela who stood amid a crowd furious about the deaths and lack of information coming from the migrant shelter.
“It is horrible what has happened to us,” Nieto said. “No other country put obstacles, no country placed impediments on us, only Mexico. We don’t want to stay here, we only want to advance toward the United States to work, for our children, for our families and for our poor mothers who are alone in Venezuela. That’s the only thing we want.”
The migrant shelter is the National Immigration Institute, which sits at about a five-minute walk from the Stanton Bridge that leads into El Paso.
Officials from the NII said 68 men from Central and South America were being held at the facility when the fire began.
Surveillance video confirmed as authentic by the Associated Press shows that after mattresses within the detention cells were set on fire — possibly by incarcerated migrants — the shelter’s guards quickly fled as smoke filled the complex.
‘They take away everything’
People who had migrated to Juárez and who had been in the shelter said it was impossible for migrants to start the fire because they are stripped of all possessions before being allowed to stay.
“It is not possible for a migrant to start a fire in there. They take everything away — everything. They have nothing,” said Victor Vega, a migrant from Venezuela who has been inside the complex.
Adriana Omana, a 21-year-old migrant from Venezuela who has been processed in the center, said she was certain the fire was not started by a migrant.
“It’s impossible because there they check everything, there they do not let anything pass, everything is taken away. All laces, everything. They treat you like you’re an animal. Even with the children, they undo their braids.
“It was them (Mexican officials in the shelter). Who else?” she said.
Frank Martin Perez, a Venezuelan migrant, stood against the gate of the complex, looking in and shaking his head in anger.
“Not one of them can say that any of us have taken in any matches, any lighter, anything at all, because absolutely nothing is allowed in there. No food, no toothpaste, nothing,” he said.
People gathered in the street in front of the complex said their backs were figuratively against the wall — unable to return to their countries because of crime and poverty, unable to cross into the United States, and forced to endure what they say is abuse by Mexican authorities.
Monica Tovar, a music teacher and business administrator in Venezuela, said the ugliness of the journey to Juárez and the deaths of her fellow migrants this week has marred the idea of coming to the United States.
“It is not how it was before, when they would talk about the ‘American dream,'” she said.
However, Tovar said she has no options in Venezuela and because the employment opportunities in the United States are better, she’ll continue the journey.
“I would like to enter the United States and have a chance,” she said.
Nieto said a large protest was being organized — a gathering of migrants and press, and international organizations: “Right here in front of this tragedy, where there are already 40 people dead and by (Wednesday), there may be more,” he said.
“We are not bad. We are hardworking and humble people who want to work, we want to get ahead, we are Christian and honest people,” Nieto said. “We are mourning, but we are standing and fighting for these family members so they see that we are with them.”