Author(s): Angelo Verzoni. Published on May 2, 2023.

TOP: Paramedics and security forces recover the bodies of migrants who died in a fire at an immigration detention center in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, in March.



No Escape

A recent blaze that killed more than three dozen people at a migrant detention center in Mexico highlights the need to balance security with safety in correctional and detention facilities—a balance NFPA 101 works to achieve


In late March, a fire that tore through a migrant detention center in Ciudad Juárez—a city located just south of El Paso, Texas, on the United States–Mexico border—left 40 people dead and dozens more injured. Most were migrants from Central and South America attempting to reach the United States.

In the wake of the blaze, Mexican authorities announced they were pursuing criminal charges against one of the country’s top immigration officials, while a United Nations committee on migrant rights called for a larger investigation into migrant detention protocol and immigration facility conditions throughout the Mexican state of Chihuahua, where Ciudad Juarez is located. The deadly fire also sparked a conversation over the need to balance security with safety in correctional and detention facilities—a balance that can be achieved through the use of NFPA 101®, Life Safety Code®

“What took place 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, who lives in Mexico City. “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.”

Free egress versus containment 
In most buildings in the 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, however; 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 exists 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 stress 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.

Protesters outside the immigration detention center in Ciudad Juarez the night after the deadly fire. “The place where these people died has no dignity at all,” said one migrant living in the city said. “It is a prison.” AP Photo/Christian Chavez

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 in March. Authorities say the fire started after detainees lit mattresses inside their cell on fire to protest recent upticks in immigration delays and deportations. 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 rapidly 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. Mexico’s president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, said in April that two guards who fled the fire did not have keys to the door of a cell holding detainees.

The facility, which abuts a highway running along the Rio Grande and is just 500 feet from the U.S. border, often houses migrants from Central and South America who have been detained trying to make their way into the U.S. to seek asylum. At the time of the fire, 68 men were being held in the section of the facility that burned.

The incident capped a period of rising tensions in the city, as the migrant population there has swelled to more than 12,000 in recent months. “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.”

In a joint statement released in April, the UN Committee on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and their Families and the UN Special Rapporteur on the human rights of migrants urged Mexican officials to not only investigate the Ciudad Juarez blaze but also to examine the migrant policy and detention center conditions throughout the state of Chihuahua. (The state includes 583 miles [938 kilometers] of border with the U.S., the most of any Mexican state.) While the UN joint statement doesn’t directly refer to fire and life safety code compliance, it mentions the need to address certain safety risks known to occur in migrant detention facilities, such as overcrowding. “[Mexico] must take measures to eradicate migration containment policies that put the lives of migrants at risk and lead to tragedies such as this one,” the statement reads. 

While fires in detention and correctional facilities occur worldwide—a prison fire in Iran in October 2022 left eight people dead, for example—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.

“It’s important that construction professionals, building owners, and fire departments are 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.”

ANGELO VERZONI is manager of content marketing at NFPA. Top photograph: AP Photo/Christian Chavez