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Mexico’s top immigration official will face criminal charges in migrant detention center fire

Prosecutors said that after a fire at another detention center in Tabasco killed one person and injured 14 in 2020, the immigration agency knew of problems but didn't act.

Mexico’s top immigration official will face criminal charges in connection with a fire that killed 40 migrants, most of whom were Central American, in a government-run detention center in Ciudad Juárez last month.

Federal prosecutors announced their decision to charge Francisco Garduño, the head of Mexico’s National Immigration Institute, and five other people in a news release Tuesday.

In accordance with Mexican laws, which aim to protect the identities of those under investigation, the attorney general’s office identified only Garduño and a second immigration official who will also face charges by their first names. Local media and The Associated Press later confirmed prosecutors were referring to Garduño.

Officials in Central America and Mexico have repeatedly called for authorities to continue to investigate the case beyond the six arrests of lower-level officials, guards and a migrant on homicide charges.

Federal prosecutors allege that Garduño and the second immigration official, identified as Antonio "N," engaged in criminal conduct by "failing to comply with their obligations" as government agency leaders; failing to monitor, protect and provide security to people; and "under their charge, promoting crimes committed against migrants."

Four other public servants, whom prosecutors identified as Salvador “N," Juan “N,” Cecilia “N” and Eduardo “N,” will also face charges, accused of being "directly linked to the conduct" that led to the migrant deaths.

Prosecutors did not specify what those officials will be charged with.

The investigation shows a “pattern of irresponsibility” in which Garduño was remiss in not preventing the deadly fire even though he was aware of issues riddling his agency’s detention centers, prosecutors said.

Prosecutors alleged that after a fire at another detention center in the Gulf Coast state of Tabasco killed one person and injured 14 people in 2020, the immigration agency knew there were problems that needed to be corrected but failed to act.

The press office of the immigration agency that Garduño heads has not responded to messages and phone calls requesting comment.

There have long been complaints about immigration detention centers, but they have never been seriously addressed.

Anger initially focused on two guards caught on surveillance video who were seen fleeing the March 27 fire without unlocking the cell door to allow the migrants to escape.

The video from a security camera in the detention center shows guards walking away when the fire started in late March in the cell holding migrants. The guards are seen hurrying away as smoke fills the facility, and they do not appear to make any effort to release the migrants.

President Andrés Manuel López Obrador said earlier Tuesday that the guards didn’t have the keys.

“The door was closed, because the person who had the keys wasn’t there,” he said.

It was unclear what effect López Obrador’s comments might have on the trial of the guards, who were detained previously over the fire.

Three low-level Mexican immigration officials, a guard and a Venezuelan migrant were arrested in connection with the fire. They face homicide charges.

The migrant is alleged to have set fire to foam mattresses to protest what he apparently thought were plans to move or deport the migrants.

Mexican military planes carried the bodies of six migrants to Honduras and 17 to Guatemala on Tuesday

In Guatemala City, relatives of the 17 victims gathered at an air force base with flowers and photos of the deceased. They sobbed as the coffins were unloaded from the plane and placed in a line. Relatives were allowed to approach them.

Guatemalan Foreign Minister Mario Búcaro accompanied the bodies, which were to be taken overland to their hometowns in nine provinces.

Authorities say 19 of the 40 who died were from Guatemala; the identities of two bodies were still being confirmed.

An additional 11 Guatemalans were injured.

Some bodies of Salvadoran migrants were returned to El Salvador last week. So far, 31 bodies have been sent back to their home countries.