JUAREZ, Mexico (Border Report) – The lawyer for a Venezuelan man accused of setting a fire that killed 40 migrants at a Juarez detention center says Mexican authorities arrested the wrong man.

Jaison Daniel Catari Rivas is facing multiple counts of homicide and causing injuries after allegedly setting mattresses on fire inside a cell at the National Migration Institute (INM) building on March 27.

The fire quickly got out of control and caused serious burns and lung damage due to smoke inhalation to dozens of detained migrants. Five guards and an INM regional supervisor also are facing criminal charges because no one opened the cell after the fire broke out.

Mexican investigators put together an artist rendition of the man who set the mattresses on fire, based on witnesses’ testimony. Juarez lawyer Jorge Vazquez Campbell said the image looks nothing like his client.

“It’s a heavy-set man with long hair and corn rows. Jaison is short, skinny. He has long hair but no corn rows. There is (a case of) mistaken identity. They arrested the only survivor with long hair, but we know for a fact this man is innocent,” the lawyer told Border Report on Friday. “He literally said, ‘I had nothing to do with that.’”

An artist’s rendition based on survivors’ testimonies of the man who allegedly set the March 27 fire at a Juarez migrant detention center. (Law Office of Jorge Vazquez Campbell)

Border Report reached out to the Mexican Attorney General’s Office in Juarez for comment and is awaiting a response. The incident drew international attention and outrage by American immigration advocates who have long denounced the dangers migrants face in Mexico at the hands of criminals and authorities alike.

Vazquez Campbell, who is representing Catari pro bono on behalf of a Mexican refugee legal services nonprofit, said Catari was merely one of the many migrants caught in the chaos of the fire that in a matter of seconds filled the cell with thick, toxic smoke.

“When the fire started, he went into the bathroom and laid on the floor in order not to inhale the fumes,” the Juarez lawyer said. “He lost consciousness. He was picked up by the fire department, taken to a hospital and kept on medication. He was arrested at the hospital while still on medication and taken to Cereso (prison), where he remains in solitary confinement.”

Vazquez Campbell said Mexican authorities have not interviewed or deposed Catari and alleges he was arrested in the rush to present an outraged border community with a culprit quickly. “He was picked up because he was the only survivor with long hair. But there were many men in that cell that had long hair and some who had cornrows who perished in the fire. […] He is not the person who commited this felony.”

The lawyer said Catari projected fear and mistrust the two times he met with him. The Venezuelan migrant is now facing more than 200 years in prison if convicted.

“Like many who have come to Juarez, his hope was to cross into the United States and work to support his family. His young sister and his 2-year-old son are living in Peru,” Vazquez Campbell said. “He is afraid to talk to anyone for fear of harm or to incriminate himself, which is understandable.”

INM commissioner’s audience postponed

Also on Friday, INM Commissioner Francisco Garduño was in Juarez to attend an audience in federal court regarding the events of March 27. Garduño is free but faces administrative and potentially low-level criminal charges related to alleged omission of duty that led to conditions at the Juarez facility that fostered anarchy and poor care for detained migrants.

“I am here in compliance with my duty as a citizen and a public servant to relay to (the authorities) all of the elements that can help arrive at the truth for the sake of the victims,” Garduño told a throng of reporters waiting for him outside the federal court building in Juarez.

Garduño said he cannot speak publicly about the events because his hearing was postponed to next Tuesday and he is yet to testify. But he said he tried to help the surviving victims and their families since he learned of the tragedy.

“Since I got to Juarez hours after the painful event, my objective was to assist the victims, go to the hospitals, help with the transportation of the injured to first-class hospitals in Mexico,” he said. “The second (priority) was to transport the bodies to their countries of origin […] assist relatives with humanitarian visas so they could enter (Mexico) and being in permanent contact with foreign consulates to effect the identification of the victims.”

A federal judge has ordered the five INM and private guards, as well as regional INM Director Rear Adm. Salvador Gonzalez Guerrero to remain in jail while he decides whether or not to take them to trial on various charges including omission of duty leading to death and injuries.