At least 39 people were killed after a fire broke out at a migration center along the U.S.-Mexico border, officials said Tuesday.
Authorities believe the fire was caused by a protest initiated by some of the migrants sheltered at the center “after we think, they found out they’d be deported,” according to Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador.
Based on initial reports, migrants fearing deportation put small mattresses at the door of the shelter and set them on fire “as a form of protest,” López Obrador said in a press conference Tuesday morning. “They didn’t imagine this would cause this misfortune.”
The fire began Monday night at the migration center run by the National Migration Institute in Ciudad Juárez, the agency said in a statement.
Dozens more were injured, with 29 people taken to four hospitals in “delicate-serious condition,” the agency said, adding that there were 68 men from Central America and South America, most from Venezuela, being held in the facility at the time of the fire.
Authorities don’t know yet the names and nationalities of those who died, López Obrador said.
Images showed rows of bodies laid out under silver sheets as rescue teams, firefighters and police responded to the scene.
The National Migration Institute did not immediately reveal the cause of the fire, but the agency said that it “strongly rejects the acts that led to this tragedy,” without elaborating on what they may have been.
Authorities were investigating and the government’s National Human Rights Commission had been called in to help the migrants, it said.
The facility, in Chihuahua state, is close to the Santa Fe International Bridge and across the border from El Paso, Texas.
The country’s prosecutor general has initiated an investigation, Andrea Chávez, federal deputy of Ciudad Juarez, said in a statement on Facebook. Consular teams were also being engaged to identify the deceased, officials said.
Mexican authorities did not immediately respond to requests for further comment.
Ciudad Juarez is a major crossing point for migrants trying to make the journey across the border to the United States.
Its shelters are full of migrants waiting for opportunities to cross or who are waiting out the asylum process.
In recent years, as Mexico has stepped up efforts to stem the flow of migration to the U.S. border under pressure from Washington, its National Immigration Institute has struggled with overcrowding in its facilities.