Searching desperately for his brother after a fire killed dozens at a Mexican immigrant detention center, Abel Maldonado pleaded with authorities to stop treating migrants like animals.
“We’re not dogs,” the 29-year-old Venezuelan construction worker repeated before visiting a morgue, praying that his brother had survived the blaze in Ciudad Juarez near the US border.
He said the same thing to security personnel at the immigration facility when he went to ask about the fate of his 22-year-old sibling, Orlando.
And he kept repeating it to demand “humane and fair” treatment from authorities in the border city, where he arrived 11 days earlier with his wife, two young children and brother on a freight train known as “The Beast” ridden clandestinely by migrants through Mexico.
“It’s my family. It’s not a dog that’s in there. We’re migrants. We’re not thieves or gangsters — nothing like that. We just want to work and have a better life for our families,” Maldonado told one of the guards at the center.
Almost 17 hours after the tragedy, he still did not know if his brother was among the 40 dead or the 28 injured who were taken to hospital, some in serious condition.
According to Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, the migrants were believed to have lit the fire as a protest because they feared they would be deported.
Anger boiled outside the detention facility, with relatives chanting demands for justice.
“Every migrant has the right to be safe, to be protected, even by migration,” said Fran Martin Perez, also from Venezuela.
“Because we’re not criminals,” he added.
Maldonado said he and his brother were brought to the detention center Monday by officials promising them a work permit that would allow them to stay in Mexico legally while seeking asylum in the United States.
“But they tricked us in,” he said, showing a 30-day residency document that he was given instead.
Because he was with his wife and children, Maldonado was released, while he left behind his brother who was locked up inside the detention center, he said.
“I said goodbye with a broken heart” Maldonado added.
Hostility towards migrants has grown in Ciudad Juarez, where they try to earn money in the streets cleaning car windows and selling trinkets, or ask for help buying food, he explained.
The city’s mayor, Cruz Perez Cuellar, denied that the authorities had launched raids targeting the migrants who were later engulfed by the fire.
After hundreds of migrants tried to storm the Mexico-US border on March 12, the mayor had warned that the “patience” of authorities was “running out.”
Whether his brother is dead or alive, returning to crisis-hit Venezuela is not an option, Maldonado said.
“I sold my house, my car. I was left with nothing in order to get here. We only ask for a little patience, understanding, because we’re not animals,” he said. “We’re not dogs. We’re human beings.”