Faculty of law blogs / UNIVERSITY OF OXFORD

After the Fire

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Guest post by Gabriella Sanchez. Gabriella is a research fellow at Georgetown University's Collaborative for Global Children's Issues. Her work examines the facilitation of irregular migration. 

For Blanca, Elias and my mom

people inside a cathedral
The inside of the cathedral the day of the funeral mass (Photo: Gabriella Sanchez)

A few hours after the fire that took the lives of 40 migrant men in Ciudad Juarez last March, I ran across the bridge into Mexico to attend the funeral mass. The preventable tragedy had occurred at a local migration detention center which had been determined to be inadequate as a holding facility a few months earlier.  That morning, as I walked into the cathedral, I lost my temper at the sight of a local photographer pointing his telephoto towards some of the victims’ relatives sitting at the pews. He looked at me in anger when I grabbed his arm and told him to go back to the media-designated area. His immediate reaction was to say “And who are you and who do you work for or what?” (“Y usted quién es, para quién trabaja, o qué?”). I told him I worked for nobody, but that it was no time for pictures, and I started to cry with rage. Confused most likely by the whole scene rather than by my words, the man put away his camera and went to join the pool of journalists nearby. (Later that morning, we met again outside the detention center. We both smiled and waved at each other. He asked if I was ok, and I nodded.)

It has taken me weeks to get over the despair that I felt in the aftermath of the fire. (I take that back: I have not, and I have wondered if the feeling will ever go away.) Granted, it is hard to keep track of the number of deaths resulting from US-immigration enforcement policy on the US-Mexico border alone. Next June it will be one year since 53 people died on board a cargo truck on the way to San Antonio. The San Fernando and Cadereyta massacres in 2010 and 2012, attributed by the Mexican government to drug trafficking organizations remain uninvestigated and unresolved. CBS reported 2022 as one the most lethal years on record on the US-Mexico border, with over 850 migrant deaths derived from vehicular incidents, environmental exposure, and targeted violence.

The magnitude of the Juarez fire also unraveled feelings that I could no longer keep in check, perhaps because of the accumulated horror of each one of these events, or of how unreachable, even implausible justice for the victims and their family and friends seems to be. It was also personal. I am the granddaughter of one of the tens of thousands of people who have gone missing in Mexico under the US-sponsored national security strategy, and whose whereabouts remain unknown. The days following the fire reminded me of the endless visits to morgues, hospitals, and government offices with my mother looking for answers, and the annoyed faces of government employees asking questions and jolting down general details (“What is his full name? Date of birth? When did he go missing? What was he wearing? Any tattoos or marks? Do you have a recent picture of him? Did anything happen at home that might have led him to leave?”). I remember the time a white, middle-class young man assigned to missing persons unit pretended to give a damn about my mom’s account of the disappearance, taking notes in an old paper pad. My mom narrated how the police had told her to reach out to a fortune teller, who would, for a fee, tell us where my grandfather was. Without even looking at her, the young man simply said that for that, she had to go elsewhere to file another complaint.  I remember telling him I truly wished that one day he would experience the same loss. That I wished one day the person he loved the most went missing, because that would be the only way he would understand how we felt. I didn’t ask him for help, to acknowledge my mother’s pain, nor begged for his understanding. I somehow knew he wasn’t capable of that. But I knew, I have always known, he understood the magnitude of my wish.

In the days that followed the fire, scores of foreign journalists descended upon Juarez. They were easy to spot: they were taller than most of the people at the impromptu camp that formed outside the detention facility, and the redness that covered their skin suggested they had tried –unsuccessfully—to cope with our border’s bizarre weather, which those days ranged from freezing cold to scorching heat to blustering wind within hours. They rushed from one end of the camp to the other, seeking to identify survivors or their relatives.

flowers tied to a gate
40 plastic flowers outside the detention center to commemorate each one of the lives lost (Photo: Gabriella Sanchez)

Having being repressed and abused by local authorities, many of the people were eager to share their experiences on the record. In the days that followed, non-anonymized videos of survivors and their families denouncing the climate of corruption and intimidation to which they had been subjected while in Juarez inundated the media sphere. Troubling testimonies concerning extortion, kidnappings, and torture to the inside of the detention facility emerged, helping in part to cement the narrative against Mexican migration authorities, but simultaneously revealing the carelessness with which journalists and researchers treated their sources. At least one survivor who had been placed in a secluded location for his safety, reported waking up to the sight of a female researcher who, having gained access to the facility, took pictures of him that she then posted in her social media accounts before selling the story to Mexican media. She neither asked, nor was given, his permission to do so. In a matter of days, the coverage became a rich account of the fire, but also a visual record for local authorities eager to put faces to dissenting voices.

Most media coverage –outside the work of Juarez-based reporters –has now ceased, and researchers, journalists and their questions are now gone. Locally, there have been efforts to maintain the fire and its implications in the public eye (including some of the unfounded accusations against some of the detention center’s staff). During a webinar marking the first month of the fire, members of DHIA, Fundación para la Justicia and IMUMI –three of the NGOs that have accompanied the survivors exert their rights and filed a judicial complaint against the Mexican government –urged the audience to mobilize politically so that the migration enforcement dynamics that consistently lead to migrant tragedies are addressed and that the fire was not forgotten. Personally, I have refused to answer questions that, however well-intentioned they may be, simply seek to turn the pain of that night into a spectacle (“Yes, there was a fire but how did they really die? Have all the remains being found? Can you explain what the victims went through? Did you see the bodies?). Once I hung up on an American journalist who insisted that the ‘illegal migrants’ who died “were in detention because they deserved it” (I am not the one saying it, it is what everyone says, she asserted, before telling me she would approach a Spanish speaking interlocutor instead given my reluctance to confirm the claim). I refused to condemn the implicit racism and classism that sought to blame the deaths on the private security guards at the facility (often working-class, elderly and increasingly, migrant men). During interviews, I have insisted that we do not have detailed information on the victims’ cause of death, not only because that is the case –the Mexican government has in fact refused to designate an independent prosecutor to investigate the fire --but also because I think it is important not to reduce the lives of people to the pain and horror that they had to endure. I believe we have a collective responsibility to dignify, to preserve the memory of the tens of thousands of people who have gone missing in the context of the decades-long involvement of the US government in Mexico’s national security policy, in which migration enforcement figures prominently. (It is no coincidence that the common cry during demonstrations from the families of the missing has long been “Vivos los llevaron, vivos los queremos” –they were taken alive; we want them alive).

a sign at the gates of a detention centre
A sign by the detention center: "In no one's land, the burial of many." (Photo: Gabriella Sanchez)

The Juarez fire terrified me because it showed me a level of cruelty I had never seen.  My work on migrant smuggling has always refused to accept simplistic explanations of violence, because, I have always found the mark of people’s determination and resistance. In the weeks that followed the fire, and now facing the impending termination of Title 42 restrictions and already witnessing its devastating implications, I have at times wondered if I have been too naïve. Migrants are disposable. The state is violent—it killed those 40 men. But if that is the case, then how do I explain the courage of local activists –in their vast majority, women, many of them migrants themselves and mothers, who continue to work despite the concerning levels of  surveillance and intimidation they face on both sides of the border? What do I make of the migrants defiantly trying to earn a living in the streets of Juarez, and even among those who having just been returned while attempting to cross the border, gather around a phone to call a smuggler to arrange for another try?  

None of these images seek to glorify the extreme precarity and danger people face. But it is in these spaces where I see hope. Drive. Anger. Courage. So much courage.

I know well my grandfather would have seen that too.   

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style):

G. Sanchez. (2023) After the Fire. Available at:https://blogs.law.ox.ac.uk/border-criminologies-blog/blog-post/2023/05/after-fire. Accessed on: 14/07/2024

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