CIUDAD JUAREZ, Mexico (AP) — When a fire broke out at a Mexican immigration detention facility last month, dramatically different reactions by guards in the men’s and women’s sections appeared to make a difference in who lived and died, according to previously unreported surveillance videos and witness statements viewed by The Associated Press.
Forty male detainees perished in the March 27 blaze, allegedly started by a male migrant in protest of their rumored transfer from the facility in Ciudad Juarez, across the border from El Paso, Texas. All 15 of the female detainees safely escaped from their side of the facility as it began to fill with smoke.
The videos show that in the hours before the fire, the deadliest ever at a migration detention center in the country, private security guards contracted by Mexico’s immigration agency used keys to open the men’s section to allow cleaning personnel to enter and to bring them large jugs of water.
However, once the fire started, no one tried to open it again despite the presence of guards nearby. Meanwhile, on the women’s side, a female security guard sprinted through the building with keys she said the immigration official in charge of that wing had given her. That official, Gloria Liliana Ramos, is among those charged with homicide.
A central question for investigators remains: Where were the keys to the men’s section when the fire started?
Seven people – five immigration agents, a private security guard and the migrant who allegedly started the fire – have been charged with homicide and causing injury. On Friday, an initial hearing for the head of Mexico’s National Immigration Institute was delayed until Tuesday, because his defense team said they had not been given access to the investigative case file. Francisco Garduño is accused of failing in his responsibility to protect migrants.
Mexico’s Attorney General’s Office did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the contents of the videos and witness statements, which were provided to AP by a lawyer for one of the accused.
On the evening of the fire, they show, male migrants began to press mattresses against the bars to block guards’ view of what was happening inside. They also apparently unplugged surveillance cameras that they were able to access.
One man allegedly set fire to a foam mattress, and within seconds smoke began to fill the area. A previously seen surveillance video clip showed guards approach the bars but then walk away without trying to open the gate.
The immigration official who was in charge of the men’s side that evening was Rodolfo Collazo. In his statement to investigators, Collazo said that shortly before the fire erupted he had left to take two minors to another facility, placing the private security supervisor in charge and leaving behind the keys to the men’s section.
Ramos, his counterpart on the women’s side, confirmed in her own statement that Collazo had left the private supervisor in charge.
An analysis of surveillance video by forensic investigator Luis Fermín Cal y Mayor for one of the defense teams concluded that the keys to the men’s section were in the possession of the private security guards minutes before the fire started. That contradicts accounts from those guards in statements to government investigators saying that when the blaze began, they were in a bathroom filling jugs with water for the migrants and did not have the keys.
In the women’s section, another private security guard, Angélica Hinojosa, ran out when the blaze began — to get help, she said later. She returned a short time later followed by a member of the National Guard.
Hinojosa is seen on video racing through the building as female migrants begin to cover their noses and mouths amid the increasingly dense smoke. She later told investigators that when “it started to smell bad and I saw a lot of smoke,” she asked Ramos for the keys. The women’s section was opened, and everyone escaped, retracing Hinojosa’s steps to the building’s entrance.
Female migrants told government investigators they heard shouts from the men’s side of the facility, including desperate calls for water and questions about where the keys were.
Ramos’ lawyer, Aglaeth González, said Ramos saved lives and should not be charged with a crime. González said she still has not been allowed access to surveillance videos, and immigration officials she tried to interview refused to talk citing fears of reprisals.
Collazo, the official who had left with the underage migrants, returned to find the facility ablaze. He told investigators he tried to enter to find the keys, but was turned back by the smoke. He is among those facing criminal charges of homicide and causing injury.
One of the private security guards told investigators that a colleague, one of those now charged with homicide, did go back inside and found the keys on a desk. That guard managed to open a back door but not another lock inside, he said.
The area remained sealed off until firefighters arrived and broke down a wall, and only then were those migrants still alive able to escape. More than two dozen were injured, but survived.
Lawyers for the accused have also questioned whether prosecutors have sufficiently analyzed the hours of video from the surveillance cameras, which numbered more than a dozen.
The countries where the victims came from have demanded a transparent investigation to find and hold responsible any officials and employees who share blame for the deaths, including those high up the chain of command.