A migrant detention center in Mexico is shown on Google Maps in 2022. A major fire at the facility in March 2023 left 39 men dead.

Ciudad Juárez Blaze That Killed 39 ‘Should Not Have Happened,’ Fire Safety Expert Says

At least 39 migrants being held in a detention center in Ciudad Juárez, a city located just south of El Paso, Texas, on the United States–Mexico border, died Monday evening after a massive fire tore through the facility. In the aftermath of the event, which was one of the deadliest fires in recent history in Mexico, fire safety experts from NFPA® are detailing the measures detention and correction facilities can take to prevent future tragedies like this from occurring.


“What happened in the Ciudad Juárez migrant station is an event that should not have happened and should not happen again,” said Jaime Gutierrez, the international development director for Latin America at NFPA.  


Although widely used codes and standards such as NFPA 101®, Life Safety Code® (available in Spanish), provide guidance on keeping individuals being held in detention or correctional facilities safe from fire, devastatingly destructive and deadly fires in such occupancies have been known to occur globally. Just six months ago, for instance, a fire in an Iran prison killed eight people and left dozens more injured.


“We have to do a better job at looking at the guidance that is already out there from organizations such as NFPA in keeping these facilities safe,” said Gutierrez, who lives in Mexico City.





In most buildings in the modern, developed world, free egress is required by codes like NFPA 101. This is the idea that occupants inside an office, restaurant, or other building will be able to flow out of it freely in the event of a fire or other emergency. (This wasn’t always the norm, and some of the most notorious fires throughout history, such as Boston’s Cocoanut Grove fire in 1942 or the Triangle Waist Company fire in New York City in 1911, involved exit doors that were locked or otherwise blocked.)


One notable exception to this concept, however, is for detention and correctional facilities, where occupants may be locked inside cells or other holding areas. Because of these unique circumstances, safety in detention and correctional facilities can be more difficult to achieve, but experts say it’s important not to overlook it. 


“It is crucial that there is a balance between security and life safety when designing and operating detention and correctional facilities,” said NFPA engineer Shawn Mahoney.


Chapters 22 and 23 of the Life Safety Code outline requirements for both new and existing detention and correctional facilities. In these chapters, the limitation on free egress in such facilities is acknowledged, and safety measures to counteract that limitation are described.


“Because the safety of all occupants in detention and correctional facilities cannot be adequately ensured solely by dependence on evacuation of the building,” the code states, “their protection from fire shall be provided by appropriate arrangement of facilities; adequate, trained staff; and development of operating, security, and maintenance procedures.” These procedures, the code continues, should consider structural design elements such as compartmentation, planning and practicing evacuation scenarios, and fire detection, notification, and suppression.


In all cases, NFPA 101 requires that staff members of detention facilities be able to release detainees to let them evacuate during emergencies. For new facilities, the code requires automatic sprinkler systems when free egress isn’t provided. 


It remains unclear which, if any, of the safety measures outlined in NFPA 101 were in place at the facility that burned in Ciudad Juárez Monday. In a video allegedly captured of the blaze, which has been widely circulated in the media and online, smoke and flames can be seen building at a frightening pace inside a cell while a man dressed in what appears to be a uniform walks by quickly. In a PBS News Hour article published two days after the incident, witnesses alleged guards at the facility failed to release male detainees after the fire broke out, and Mexican authorities have said they are investigating eight employees for potential criminal charges.


Authorities say the fire started after some detainees lit mattresses inside their cell on fire to protest recent upticks in immigration delays and deportations. The facility, which abuts a highway running along the Rio Grande, just 500 feet from the U.S. border, often houses migrants from South and Central America who have been detained trying to make their way into the U.S. At the time of Monday’s fire, 68 men were being held in the section of the facility that ended up burning.


The incident capped a period of rising tensions in the city, as the migrant population there has swelled to over 12,000 in recent weeks. “This tragedy is a crime against humanity,” a 55-year-old Venezuelan migrant who’s been living on the streets of Ciudad Juárez with his two daughters told the New York Times. “The place where these people died has no dignity at all. It is a prison.”


While fires in detention and correctional facilities occur worldwide, Latin America in particular has a history of catastrophic fires in these facilities. The deadliest prison fire ever occurred in Comayagua, Honduras, in 2012, claiming 361 lives. An NFPA Journal article published seven months after that blaze calculated the likelihood of dying in a prison fire in Latin America at more than 200 times higher than in the U.S. “Many of the worst fires in Latin American prisons are the result of overcrowding and lack of adequate levels of fire safety,” the article said. “Curtains and other combustible materials surrounding prison beds are common in Latin American jails, as are electrical appliances and the resulting overloaded electrical outlets.”


The best way to prevent these fires, experts say, is through the use of codes and standards like NFPA 101.

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“It’s important that construction professionals, building owners, and fire departments to be trained on NFPA 101 and that inspections are conducted to hold high-risk properties accountable,” said Gutierrez. “There are dozens of other migrant centers throughout Mexico, so it’s urgent to take measures in all of these facilities to prevent another tragic event like the one that occurred.”

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