Editor’s note: this story has been updated with information from Mexican authorities on the death toll of the incident.

JUAREZ, Mexico (KTSM) – Thirty nine have died and 28 more are hospitalized after a fire broke out Monday night at the Juarez immigration building near the Stanton Street Bridge, Chihuahua state authorities say.

The fire broke out in the male detention area. Fifteen female migrants being held in the women’s section of the center were unharmed, state officials said in a news release.

Most of those inside the center were Venezuelan nationals and citizens of Central American countries, state officials said.

Mexico’s Attorney General said of those in the shelter, 28 were Guatemalan; 13 were Honduran, 12 were Salvadoran, 12 were Venezuelan, one was Colombian, and one was Ecuadorian. The nationality of one man was not known.

El Paso Fire Department officials said they had not received any of the injured to transport for care over on U.S. side of the bridge.

Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador on Tuesday morning said the fire was set by migrants afraid they would be deported. The migrants set some mattresses on fire and the flames apparently got out of control.

A total of 83 people were in the building when the fire broke out, including seven employees of the National Migration Institute (INM), who were in charge of the migrants.

Many of the deceased victims were placed in silver blankets outside the building as fire crews worked to assess the situation and contain the fire.

One woman from Venezuela, identified as Vangly, told our news crew in Juarez that her husband was detained around 1 p.m. on Monday and taken to that facility. She tells KTSM her husband was injured in the fire and was seen being placed into an ambulance.

In a statement to KTSM, a U.S. Customs and Border Protection spokesman said the agency has been in communication with the El Paso Office of Emergency Management and is prepared to receive and process those who are being taken via ambulance from Mexico to U.S. medical facilities for treatment.

“CBP will parole the individuals into the U.S. for emergency medical services using established protocols to quickly process and admit the injured individuals,” the spokesman said.

“We deeply regret the loss of 39 people so far …. We know some of the injured are in a critical state,” Juarez Mayor Cruz Perez Cuellar said on Tuesday. He echoed Lopez Obrador’s version of events. “Everything points to this being motivated by a sort of riot inside, some people being worried about their likely transfer.”

The mayor said some of the injured were treated at private hospitals when public hospitals became full after the tragedy.

This is not the first time that a fire breaks out at the Mexican facility by the Stanton Street Bridge. Sixty-two Cuban and Honduran migrants escaped the facility in May of 2019 by setting fire to some objects and taking off during the evacuation of the building, according to Mexican news reports at the time.

‘A terrible tragedy’

The tragedy sent ripples across the border among migrant advocates and El Paso county leaders.

“Upon hearing the news of devastation experienced in our neighboring Juarez, we are saddened by the tremendous loss of lives,” El Paso County Judge Ricardo Samaniego said in a statement Tuesday morning. “My heart is heavy knowing that each life lost carried so much potential. I offer my condolences to those who feel the impact of grief.”

Samaniego and others have expressed concern about the adverse impact in Mexico of U.S. immigration policies keeping at arms-length those who want to come into the United States.

“As we saw three weeks ago, the desperation felt by those seeking better lives manifested into a surge at a port of entry; a frustrated convergence further exacerbated by brown-stream solutions and temporary fixes. I pray that the fire this morning was not another manifestation of this desperation.”

The county judge was referring to the March 12 mass gathering of up to 1,200 people, mostly Venezuelan migrants, who demanded entry into the United States at the Paso del Norte Bridge.

El Paso Catholic Diocese Bishop Mark J. Seitz also expressed his condolences regarding the tragedy.

“This tragedy underscores the urgency of addressing the complex humanitarian crisis that has continued to unfold unabated in our border community. Our brother and sister migrants, who are in many cases fleeing extreme violence, persecution, and extreme poverty, deserve dignity,
compassion, and the protection of their human rights as children of God,” Seitz said in a statement. “I will continue to call for just and humane immigration policies that respect the dignity and rights of all people.”

Unanswered questions remain

Asked if the humanitarian migrant crisis is getting worse in Juarez, Mayor Perez Cuellar said: “This is very sad. We hope we don’t see this again. […] It happened at a federal installation outside our jurisdiction. We will continue to work as we have, respecting human rights and providing services to migrants at the Kiki Romero shelter “

The mayor acknowledged local authorities have been trying to get migrants out of streets and street corners “for their own safety,” but denied that figured into Monday night’s protest.

“These are two different issues. Those who seek to say they are related are just trying to profit politically with a terrible tragedy,” he said. “We will uphold the human rights of migrants and the rights of the residents.”

KTSM and Border Report will continue to follow this story and provide updates both on-air and online.