Latinx Files: It’s only a matter of time before another tragedy like the Ciudad Juarez fire happens

Prison bars with Fire
On Monday night, at least 38 migrants died and dozens more were injured in a fire inside a migrant detention center in Ciudad Juarez.
(Illustration by Diana Ramirez Santacruz / Los Angeles Times)

The future looks bleak.

At least 38 people incarcerated in a migrant detention center in Ciudad Juarez died in a fire, with dozens more injured. The victims hailed from Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Venezuela, Colombia and Ecuador.

There’s conflicting information about what exactly happened. Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador claimed that the fire was started by the incarcerated migrants after learning that they were going to be deported.

But according to a Mexican federal official who spoke to The Times on condition of anonymity, the fire may have started in protest of poor treatment, “saying it began because 68 men were packed into a cell meant for no more than 50 people — with no access to drinking water.”


Regardless of what the truth is, what’s not up for debate is that this tragedy could have been avoided.

On Tuesday, surveillance video from inside the detention facility circulated online, showing several guards walking away as the flames grew. At one point, you see a man desperately kicking the cell door to no avail.

The hard-to-watch footage confirms what many migrants trapped along Mexican border cities believe, that their lives don’t matter.

“We were there not long ago. It could have been us dying in there like animals, like pigs being slaughtered in a fire,” said a Venezuelan woman who spoke to El Paso Matters reporter Cindy Ramirez. “Does it matter? Do our names matter to anyone?”

Viangly Infante Padrón, another Venezuelan migrant in Ciudad Juarez, was in the waiting area of the detention center when the fire started. Her husband, Eduard Cabello, had been picked up by Mexican immigration agents earlier that day despite the couple and their children having legal permission to be in Mexico.

“I screamed, ‘Open the door!’” Infante Padrón told the El Paso Times. “That whatever the case, they are human beings and deserve to live. And they let them burn inside.”


Thankfully, Cabello was not among the dead. He was taken in for medical attention because of smoke inhalation.

On Wednesday, López Obrador promised a thorough investigation into what happened.

“There is no intention to cover up what happened, no intention to protect anyone,” he told reporters in his daily news conference. “In our government we don’t permit violation of human rights or impunity.”

I have no doubt that within the next few days or weeks, those the Mexican government has asked to fall on their sword will be paraded in front of us.

But that won’t be enough, and it certainly doesn’t fix the actual issue— a broken binational immigration policy in which Mexico is doing more and more of the United States’ dirty work of keeping migrants and asylum seekers out.

“It’s not like these incidents just happen out of thin air,” Stephanie Leutert, director of the Central America and Mexico Policy Initiative at the University of Texas at Austin and a former Biden administration official, told my colleagues. “You’ve got the U.S. and Mexico’s restrictive immigration policies and border enforcement efforts that create the conditions.”

What happened in Ciudad Juarez isn’t just a horrific loss of life that could have been avoided. It is also, as Pedro Gerson, associate professor at California Western School of Law, writes, “a harbinger of what is to come with ever more restrictive policies in the U.S. and the displacement of immigration enforcement to countries south of the border.”


That’s what worries me.

In a just world, this tragedy would serve as a watershed moment that would mobilize Mexico and the United States into coming up with a humane solution to the humanitarian crisis at the border.

But we don’t live in that world. In reality, I suspect that this loss of life will be nothing more than an inconvenience for our political leaders meant to be weathered rather than addressed.

So yeah, the future looks bleak.

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Things we read this week that we think you should read

— My colleague Melissa Gomez traveled to Pajaro, Calif., and reported on the effect the recent flood has had on the children of this predominantly migrant farmworker town. Gomez also teamed with Ruben Vives to profile the Indigenous interpreters who are helping those affected navigate the aftermath.

— Gomez also wrote about the Anahuacalmecac International University Preparatory of North America, which in addition to being the only Indigenous school in Los Angeles, is also returning land to California’s Native population. The school recently purchased 12 acres of land in El Sereno and returned them to the area’s original inhabitants, the Gabrielino Shoshone Tribal Nation of Southern California.

— From the “Damn, I wish I’d written that!” department comes this Texas Monthly story by Luis G. Rendon about Taco Palenque, a Tex-Mex fast-food chain beloved by South Texans (myself included, and, in fact, I’m actually quoted in the story) whose founder, Juan Francisco Ochoa Sr., has aspirations of expanding nationally. Fun fact: Ochoa is also the person behind El Pollo Loco.


Felicidades to Carribean Fragoza, who was just named as one of the recipients of the 2023 Whiting Award. If you haven’t read her 2021 collection of short stories, “Eat the Mouth that Feeds You,” do yourself a favor and pick it up now.

John Leguizamo is guest hosting “The Daily Show” this week and it didn’t take long for him to talk about an issue very near and dear to him — the lack of Latinx representation in Hollywood. Shoutout to Leguizamo for using his platform to reiterate what he wrote in an open letter to Hollywood published by The Times in November, and I very much look forward to his portrayal of Gwyneth Paltrow in the TV series about the ongoing ski accident trial involving the actress.

— According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, autism is being diagnosed more frequently in Black and Latinx children than in their white counterparts.

Q.E.P.D.: Xavier López, a children’s comic star better known as Chabelo, died Saturday morning at the age of 88. May he ride his Avalancha in eternal youth in that gran catafixia in the sky.

For the record: Last week’s newsletter referred to My Cultura Podcast Network as Mi Cultura Podcast Network. And since we’re on the subject, make sure to check “Party Crews: The Untold Story,” a podcast about the underground party scene of the 2000s. Co-produced with VICE and LAist Studios.