L.A. activists call for justice in condemning the deaths of 39 immigrants in Ciudad Juarez

Migrants attend a vigil for the victims of a fire at an immigration detention center.
People attend a vigil Tuesday for the victims of a fire at an immigration detention center that killed dozens in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico.
(Fernando Llano / Associated Press)

Grief mixed with indignation is churning into fury among many Central American activists in Los Angeles this week as they pored over images of the Monday night inferno that engulfed Mexico’s National Migration Institute in Ciudad Juarez, killing at least 39 immigrant detainees.

Southern California activists condemned the behavior of guards who, in a surveillance video, can be seen fleeing the holding area as flames licked at cell doors, and demanded justice for the victims and their families.

The Mexican government has said that the fire was caused by detainees igniting their mattresses in protest because they faced deportation. But activists on both sides of the border have questioned that account and rebuked Mexico’s president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador.


“I want to tell the Mexican government not to be so inhumane,” said Cecilia Rodríguez, president of the Honduran Alliance of Los Angeles and a native of Choluteca, a province in southern Honduras. “This government of Mexico is a hypocrite. It doesn’t even help its own citizens. It seems to me that it is part of the mafia. Andrés Manuel López Obrador has to understand that these people do not want to live in Mexico, they just want to go through and get to the United States.”

Mexican authorities have reported that 68 people of various nationalities were being detained at the center when the fire broke out, including migrants from Guatemala, Honduras, Venezuela, El Salvador, Ecuador and Colombia.

In recent years, tens of thousands of migrants from Latin America and the Caribbean have been stranded in Mexico as the U.S. government under successive administrations has pressured Mexico to block people from crossing into the United States.

Amarilys Ortiz, general secretary of the Guatemalan American Assn., believes that López Obrador does not care about immigrants because, in her view, he has not done enough to curtail the drug- and human-trafficking cartels that exploit those fleeing poverty and violence in their homelands. In 2020, López Obrador acknowledged having ordered the release from a Mexican prison Ovidio Guzmán, son of Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, the drug trafficker and head of the powerful Sinaloa cartel.

“This should reach the United Nations organization and the large organizations that defend human rights because this becomes part of a criminal structure that the Mexican government defends,” Ortiz said, referring to Monday’s deadly conflagration. “National and world leaders should speak out about what is happening in Mexico.”

Although López Obrador initially said that the detainees had set the fires, the foreign minister of Guatemala, Mario Búcaro, blamed human smugglers, so-called coyotes, for the chain of events that culminated in this week’s deaths.


In the opinion of Rosa Posada, advisor to the Union of Emigrant Guatemalans in Los Angeles, the deaths of the migrants could have been avoided if the economic and social conditions in the countries that expelled them were improved. The majority of Central and South Americans who cross Mexican territory leave their loved ones behind while hoping to find work in Mexico, the United States and Canada.

“The people come to look for something to feed their children and their family,” said the native of Escuintla, an industrial city in Guatemala centered on sugar agribusiness. “It is really sad that the governments seeing this do not worry, they do not pay attention to this situation. The truth is that it is sad for the children who stay behind, the wives, parents and family.”

As the United States and Mexico have cracked down on immigration in recent years, Posada believes that the costs and the dangers of leaving home have risen dramatically. She said that the Mexican government must respect people’s right to migrate and take more responsibility for avoiding situations that lead to tragedies such as that in Ciudad Juarez.

“We energetically protest because there are so many arbitrary acts that occur against migrants [on Mexican soil], no matter where they are from,” said Leoncio Velásquez, president of United Hondurans of Los Angeles.

A native of Tegucigalpa, the Honduran capital, Velásquez said that a protest will be held at 4 p.m. Friday in front of the Mexican Consulate in Los Angeles, followed by a procession to 7th and Alvarado streets in the MacArthur Park area. There, participants will light candles and hold a vigil in memory of the Ciudad Juarez fire victims.

“We are going to protest in front of the consulate to demand that the Mexican authorities respect the rights of migrants,” Velásquez said. “Mexico has to respect anyone on the migration route.”


Meanwhile, officials at the various Central American consulates in Los Angeles have said they will provide assistance and information to any of their compatriots regarding the Ciudad Juarez tragedy.

“In case there is a need or a family member appears, through the consular protection area we will put them in contact with the authorities in Guatemala,” said José Arturo Rodríguez, Guatemalan consul general in L.A.

Guatemalan migrants can call (213) 900-1098 and dial option No. 2 to access an emergency number. Hondurans living in the United States may reach their consulate’s call center at (470) 751-9077.