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El Salvador Calls for Investigation After Deadly Fire at Mexico Border Migrant Facility    

El Salvador on Wednesday strongly condemned the actions of personnel at an immigration detention center in Mexico after a fire killed at least 40 people.

Surveillance video shows two of the detention center’s guards running away after the fire broke out late Monday, apparently making no attempt to release the men held inside a room before it filled with smoke.

El Salvador’s foreign ministry said in a statement that it is demanding a thorough investigation of what happened and for those responsible to be brought to justice.

Pope Francis used part of his weekly audience Wednesday to call for prayers for those who died in what he called the “tragic blaze.”

The fire took place at a facility run by the National Migration Institute in Ciudad Juarez, a major crossing area for migrants or asylum-seekers wishing to enter the United States.

The dead and injured were from Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Venezuela, Colombia and Ecuador, with Guatemalans being the largest contingent, according to a statement from the Mexican attorney general’s office.

Guatemala Foreign Affairs Minister Mario Búcaro said 28 of the dead were Guatemalan citizens. A Honduran official said at least 13 of the victims were from Honduras. There has been no explanation for the discrepancies in the numbers of victims.

President Andrés Manuel López Obrador said once migrants heard they were going to be deported from Mexico, they started a fire inside the facility in protest.

An image taken from video shows members of the Mexican Army at the site of a fire at an immigration detention facility in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, March 28, 2023. (Cesar Contreras/VOA Spanish)
An image taken from video shows members of the Mexican Army at the site of a fire at an immigration detention facility in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, March 28, 2023. (Cesar Contreras/VOA Spanish)

"At the door of the shelter, they put mattresses and set them on fire, and they did not imagine that this was going to cause a terrible misfortune," López Obrador said. He added that the director of the country’s immigration agency was on the scene.

"Last night’s events are a horrible example of why organizations have been working to limit or eliminate detention in Mexico," said Gretchen Kuhner, director of the Mexico-based Institute for Women in Migration, which supports migrant rights, told Reuters.

U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric said Secretary-General Antonio Guterres was deeply saddened by the migrant deaths in Ciudad Juarez and conveyed condolences to the families.

“The secretary-general calls for a thorough investigation into this tragic event. Of course, we all reiterate our commitment to work with the authorities of countries where mixed movements of people occur to establish safer, more regulated, and more organized migration routes as we have been saying quite often from here,” Dujarric told reporters.

Viangly Infante Padrón, 31, a Venezuelan migrant seeking asylum in the United States with her husband and three children, waited at a nearby hospital for her husband, who was being treated for smoke inhalation.

She had been waiting outside the detention center for her husband when the fire started.

“There was smoke everywhere. The ones they let out were the women, and those [employees] with immigration," she told The Associated Press. “The men, they never took them out until the firefighters arrived.”

U.S. Representative Veronica Escobar, a Democrat who represents the district at the southern border closest to the shelter, tweeted Tuesday morning that "More than 38 souls were lost in Juarez — people who were waiting and hoping for a shot at a better life. This refugee crisis has put vulnerable people at great risk every step of the way.”

In recent weeks, tensions between law enforcement authorities and migrants have been running high in Ciudad Juarez. Shelters were full of those waiting for a chance to enter the United States or cross into the country to request asylum.

U.S. Ambassador to Mexico Ken Salazar said in a statement that Mexicans “are together” with migrants in Ciudad Juarez during this moment of pain.

“It is a reminder to the governments of the region of the importance in fixing a broken migration system and the risks of irregular migration,” he wrote.

The office of Mexico's Attorney General is investigating the incident.