CIUDAD JUAREZ, Mexico -- The death toll from a fire inside a migrant detention center rose to 39 Wednesday as hundreds of migrants began walking toward a U.S. border crossing in the belief that American authorities would let them through.
The situation in the Mexican border city of Ciudad Juarez was a mix of emotions. There was anger over the deaths of migrants trapped in their cells during a smoky fire that sent guards fleeing, and there was a tearful wait for information on the condition of the nearly 30 injured in the blaze.
Santiago de la Peña, the Chihuahua state interior secretary, increased the death count to 39. Added to that was the pent-up frustration of migrants who have spent weeks trying to make appointments on a U.S. cellphone app to file asylum claims.
Hundreds of migrants joined in the procession toward a border gate leading into El Paso, Texas, as rumors spread that they might be let through.
Jorman Colón, a 30-year-old Venezuelan migrant, walked hand-in-hand with his 9-year-old daughter, saying he had heard on social media that acquaintances had gotten through.
"We want to turn ourselves in," Colón said, referring to the first step in the asylum process.
Others said they were going to protest the detention center deaths.
Smoke began billowing out of the migrant detention center Monday after a group of detained migrants set fire to foam mattresses, to protest what they thought were plans to move or deport them.
Waiting outside the facility, Venezuelan migrant Viangly Infante Padrón was terrified because she knew her husband was still inside.
The father of her three children had been picked up by immigration agents earlier in the day, part of a recent crackdown that netted 67 other migrants, many of whom were asking for handouts or washing car windows at stoplights in this city across the Rio Grande from El Paso, Texas.
In moments of shock and horror, Infante Padrón recounted how she saw immigration agents rush out of the building after the fire started late Monday. Later came the migrants' bodies carried out on stretchers, wrapped in foil blankets.
"I was desperate because I saw a dead body, a body, a body, and I didn't see him anywhere," Infante Padrón said of her husband, Eduard Caraballo López, who in the end survived with only light injuries, perhaps because he was scheduled for release and was near a door.
But what she saw in those first minutes has become the center of a question much of Mexico is asking itself: Why didn't authorities attempt to release the men -- almost all from Guatemala, Honduras, Venezuela and El Salvador -- before smoke filled the room and killed so many?
"There was smoke everywhere. The ones they let out were the women, and those (employees) with immigration," Infante Padrón said. "The men, they never took them out until the firefighters arrived."
"They alone had the key," Infante Padrón said. "The responsibility was theirs to open the bar doors and save those lives, regardless of whether there were detainees, regardless of whether they would run away, regardless of everything that happened. They had to save those lives."
Immigration authorities said they released 15 women when the fire broke out, but have not explained why no men were let out.
President Andrés Manuel López Obrador said Wednesday that both immigration agents and security guards from a private contractor were present at the facility. He said any misconduct would be punished.
Also Wednesday, Pope Francis offered prayers at the end of his general audience for those who died in the "tragic fire."
Leaked surveillance video shows migrants, reportedly fearing they were about to be moved, placing foam mattresses against the bars of their detention cell and setting them on fire.
In the video, later confirmed by the government, two people dressed as guards rush into the camera frame, and at least one migrant appears by the metal gate on the other side. But the guards don't appear to make any effort to open the cell doors and instead hurry away as billowing clouds of smoke fill the structure within seconds.
"What humanity do we have in our lives? What humanity have we built? Death, death, death," thundered Bishop Mons. José Guadalupe Torres Campos at a Mass in memory of the migrants.
Mexico's National Immigration Institute, which ran the facility, said it was cooperating in the investigation. Guatemala has already said that many of the victims were its citizens, but the dead have not been fully identified.
U.S. authorities have offered to help treat some of the 28 people who are hospitalized in critical or serious condition, most apparently from smoke inhalation.
Advocacy groups blamed the tragedy on a long series of decisions made by leaders in places such as Venezuela and other parts of Central America, and by immigration policymakers in Mexico and the United States, as well of residents in Ciudad Juarez complaining about the number of migrants asking for handouts on street corners.
"Mexico's immigration policy kills," more than 30 migrant shelters and other advocacy organizations said in statement Tuesday.
Those same advocacy organizations published an open letter March 9 that complained of a criminalization of migrants and asylum-seekers in Ciudad Juarez. It accused authorities of abusing migrants and using excessive force in rounding them up, including complaints that municipal police questioned people in the street about their immigration status without cause.
Immigration activist Irineo Mujica said the migrants feared being sent back, not necessarily to their home countries, but to southern Mexico, where they would have to cross the country all over again.
"We had said that with the number of people they were sending, the sheer number of people was creating a ticking time bomb," Mujica said. "Today that time bomb exploded."
The migrants were stuck in Ciudad Jaurez because U.S. immigration policies don't allow them to cross the border to file asylum claims. But they were rounded up because Ciudad Juarez residents were tired of migrants blocking border crossings or asking for money.
The high level of frustration in Ciudad Juarez was evident earlier this month when hundreds of mostly Venezuelan migrants tried to force their way across one of the international bridges to El Paso, acting on false rumors that the United States would allow them to enter the country. U.S. authorities blocked their attempts.
After that, Ciudad Juarez Mayor Cruz Pérez Cuellar started campaigning to inform migrants there was room in shelters and no need to beg in the streets. He urged residents not to give money to them, and said authorities removed migrants intersections where it was dangerous to beg and residents saw the activity as a nuisance.
On Wednesday, the mayor told the AP his office had not received any report of rights abuses of migrants in detention facilities. He insisted that his government shared no responsibility for what happened.