Mexican blame game over migrant deaths fuels tension in presidency race

Vigil outside the office of the National Institute of Migration (INM) in Ciudad Juarez

By Dave Graham

MEXICO CITY (Reuters) - The fire at a Mexican migrant holding center that killed dozens has triggered recriminations inside and outside President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador's government, exposing tensions in his party ahead of next year's presidential election.

Thirty-nine people died in the facility in the border city of Ciudad Juarez opposite El Paso, Texas. Lopez Obrador initially said the blaze was started by detained migrants protesting their impending deportation.

Video footage on social media purportedly showing the fire prompted angry questions about why the mostly Central American migrant men were fatally trapped inside even as authorities said they had safely evacuated all the women from their section.

The 30-second video, which Interior Minister Adan Augusto Lopez said came from the state government, shows uniformed officials walking past a locked cell door while men behind it tried to get out as the room filled with smoke.

"The whole government is to blame here," said Rosa Maria Gonzalez, an opposition lawmaker who heads the lower house of Congress migration committee. She called it "a crime" not to intervene as migrants were engulfed in smoke and flame.

Critics of the government urged the head of the National Migration Institute (INM) to quit. Top government officials vying to succeed Lopez Obrador became embroiled in debates over where the buck stopped.

The president vowed to punish those responsible for the deaths, but on Wednesday he accused the media of "sensationalism" and "trafficking in human suffering."

Lopez Obrador has weathered past crises, enduring temporary dips in his popularity, which remains far stronger than that of most leaders of major economies.

A daily tracking poll by Consulta Mitofsky on Wednesday showed his approval rating had slipped overnight to its lowest level in two months, but remained above 60%.

Mexican presidents serve a single six-year term. Lopez Obrador's successor will be elected in June 2024, with whoever becomes his party's candidate seen as a strong favorite.


The stricken facility belongs to the INM, part of the Interior Ministry, and the fire broke out as Mexico struggles to cope with record levels of migrant crossings into the U.S.

Still, in a radio interview on Tuesday, Interior Minister Lopez, a leading presidential contender from the ruling National Regeneration Movement (MORENA), said he was "not the person in charge of managing the migration system."

"There's an agreement inside government, and it's Foreign Minister Marcelo (Ebrard) who's in charge of migration," Lopez told Radio Formula, before adding that the matter involved "shared responsibilities".

Afterwards, Ebrard, another of the favorites for the MORENA candidacy, said on Twitter he was leaving "any political considerations" aside and urged "each person to do their duty."

Describing the remarks as a "blame game" between Lopez and Ebrard, former Mexican deputy foreign minister Andres Rozental said while the Foreign Ministry did oversee international discussions on migration policy, the Interior Ministry and INM had "always" been in charge of domestic holding centers.

El Salvador's government, members of U.S. Congress and even erstwhile MORENA lawmakers were among those to condemn the failure of migration authorities to save the trapped migrants.

Gabriela Cuevas, a former MORENA congresswoman, compared the Ciudad Juarez fire to the 72 migrants murdered in 2010 by drug cartel gunmen in San Fernando in the northern state of Tamaulipas.

"In San Fernando, criminals riddled the migrants with bullets, in Ciudad Juarez, government officials left them to the fire," she wrote in newspaper El Economista.

(Reporting by Dave Graham; Editing by Christian Plumb and David Gregorio)