‘I’m a scapegoat,’ says Mexican immigration agent accused in Juárez detention center fire

mayo 8, 2024
Friends and family of Rodolfo Collazo de la Torre, a National Migration Institute agent accused in the death of 40 migrants in a Ciudad Juárez detention center fire on March 2023, protest his arrest. Photo: La Verdad Juárez

By Blanca Carmona / La Verdad Juárez

Translation: El Paso Matters


Ciudad Juárez – From prison, Rodolfo Collazo de la Torre, a National Migration Institute agent accused in the death of 40 migrants in a Ciudad Juárez detention center fire on March 27, 2023, breaks his silence.

“I am a scapegoat,” he said in an interview with La Verdad in Juárez.

He said that the person responsible for the tragedy is the person who started the fire. Two Venezuelan migrants are accused of setting fire to vinyl sleeping mats in protest of poor conditions in an overcrowded men’s holding cell. He is among nine others, including immigration agents and private security guards, who also face charges in the incident that killed 40 men and injured 27 others.

Surveillance video has shown that the agents and guards walked away when smoke filled the building without attempting to open the men’s cell – leaving them trapped inside.

Of the immigration officers who did not open the cell to the migrants, Collazo said, I don’t know. I don’t know why they didn’t open (the cell door).”

Collazo said the keys to the cell were in the detention center, contradicting statements by Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, who on April 11, 2023, declared that the person who had the keys was not present at the time of the fire. The National Migration Institute, or INM as it’s known, has also stated that the keys were not in the center.

An investigation by La Verdad, El Paso Matters and Lighthouse Reports, however, revealed that the keys were in the building the entire time. The media organizations reviewed hours of surveillance video and traced the key’s location throughout the day.

Collazo also questions why he has been behind bars for nearly a year while INM Commissioner Francisco Garduño Yáñez remains free and on the job while he faces criminal proceedings. He said that he believes that’s because López Obrador supports him.

“I think I am a scapegoat, where really the only thing the prosecutor’s office did was grab whoever was on duty, and well, Gloria Liliana and I were there, and they grabbed us both,” he said, referring to his INM colleague. La Verdad is only naming Gloria Liliana as she’s identified in court records.

Both Collazo and Gloria Liliana are behind bars, accused by the Attorney General’s Office, or FGR, of homicide and injuries in the form of commission by omission – in essence not fulfilling their duties to ensure the safety of those they had in custody.

Collazo, 53, spoke with La Verdad of Juárez via phone from the Social Rehabilitation Center known as Cereso No. 3, where he has been for more than a year. The interview was requested through his relatives, who have held protests demanding justice for Collazo.

The state Cereso prison in Ciudad Juarez (La Verdad)

‘I was not there when the fire started’

Collazo has been in prison since March 30, 2023. He said he believes that the FGR is acting fraudulently in his case.

He alleges that he was not in the immigration station when the fire started. He said he left to transfer two Salvadoran boys – 10- and 14-year-old cousins ​​or brothers, he does not remember precisely – to the Nohemí Álvarez Quillay shelter for boys, girls and migrant adolescents traveling unaccompanied.

“I was not there at those moments,” he said, adding that he made this declaration to the FGR. “However, the prosecutor’s office said that it was my alibi to distance myself from that, but no, because there is the evidence.”

He points to a video  made public by the investigative news outlets that shows surveillance footage from the INM station.

“You can see when I’m leaving, there’s the video. The same as when I’m entering, when they already have the young people (migrant women) out there on the stairs, that’s when I’m arriving,” he said.

According to the videos, Collazo left the station at 8:58 p.m. – 30 minutes before the fire started. Flames from the fire are first visible in the videos at 9:28 p.m. He returned at 9:39 p.m., when the fire had spread.

Collazo claims that he lost the documents proving that he was ordered to transfer the minor migrants to the shelter and what time he left. He said the shelter has copies of documents he signed showing when he took the boys to the shelter and alleges the prosecutor’s office requested the signature logs for a time period different from when he took the boys there.

Collazo alleges the investigator in charge, Brisa Alejandra Tufiño Morgado, only requested signature logs from 5 p.m. to 8:30 p.m.

“I consider it unfair to be here – unfair because from the beginning I said that I was not there (in the room),” he said, adding that the prosecutor’s office isn’t doing its job adequately.

Documents obtained by La Verdad indicate that on March 29, 2023, Tufiño requested a register of the people who were received at the Nohemí Álvarez Quillay shelter between 5:30 and 8:30 p.m. on the day of the fire. Records show three minors were received during that time, but none by Collazo.

Court transcripts show that in a recorded interview Collazo gave before the FGR on March 28, 2023, he stated he was in his work area until about 8:40 p.m. when he was ordered to take the two minors to the state’s social assistance headquarters and returned at approximately 9:20 p.m. 

He said he only found out about the fire when he returned to the station.

Friends and family of Rodolfo Collazo de la Torre, a National Migration Institute agent accused in the death of 40 migrants in a Ciudad Juárez detention center fire on March 2023, protest his arrest. Photo: La Verdad Juárez

La Verdad: What did you do when you saw that the men’s cell was on fire?

Collazo: “When I arrived I saw the smoke was already coming out from the front, and well, also from the back, and the young (women) migrants were already on the stairs. That is when I entered. I entered to look for the keys.” 

Collazo said that when he walked closely against the wall until he reached the desk where he believed a key to the back door that connects to the parking lot might be.

La Verdad: Why did you look for the key  there?

Collazo: “Because (Gloria) Liliana told me.”

La Verdad: Did she know where the keys were?

Collazo“Yes, she had to have known where that key was.”

Video discovered during the news organizations’ investigation shows that Immigration officials and private security guards walked out of the building as it filled with smoke – at no time attempting to open the men’s cell and leaving the migrants trapped inside.

Collazo added that Gloria Liliana must have known where the keys to the door that connected to the parking lot was located – and had the door been opened, he said, smoke would not have overwhelmed the area so quickly.

Collazo says that on the night of the fire, the key to the men’s cell was in the possession of one of the CAMSA guards, who is charged in the incident but is currently on the run over another accusation.

“There was a time, during that time, that they could have opened that cell, I really don’t know why they didn’t do it because, well, it was inhumane that they didn’t open it,” Collazo said. “Having the key – I don’t know why they didn’t do it.”

An INM representative in the Chihuahua office also charged in the incident, identified in court documents only as Salvador G.G., in his court statement said the keys should have been in the hands of those in charge during the shift. In this case, that would have been Gloria Liliana and Collazo.

In one of the videos analyzed by the three news organizations, a woman believed to be Gloria Liliana can be heard saying, “No, we are not going to them (inaudible)… we are not going to open them, I already told the guys.”

A fire at the National Migration Institute at the foot of the Stanton Street bridge in Juárez on March 27, 2023, killed 40 migrants. The bodies of the dead were wrapped in mylar blankets outside the facility while dozens of injured were rushed to area hospitals. Photo: Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters

La Verdad: Do you know why nobody opened the cell? Was there an order not to open the cell door?

Collazo: “At those moments I don’t know what happened to them, that is, if they were scared or received some order from someone.”

Collazo said that on the night of March 27, 2023, the men’s cell was full of migrants who had been detained just hours before during a “raid” to remove them from the streets. Migrants were unhappy over the conditions in which they were being held – without enough food or water.

He reiterates that the blame for the incident – and the deaths and injuries – rests solely on the people who started the fire. Two Venezuelan migrants are accused of lighting vinyl sleeping mats on fire.

‘My life is being consumed’

On the day of the interview, Collazo had served one year and 12 days in prison, where he claims his life is being consumed.

He said the court process is going very slowly, as the cas is still being investigated.

He said his days in prison are filled with depression, helplessness and frustration. He fears a deterioration in his health because he still suffers from the consequences of an aneurysm he had four years ago.

“I have been asking to be seen by one of the neurologists and just this week I managed to get them to take me to the hospital,” he said, adding that he was handcuffed under security protocols. “People who see me and, I don’t know, it makes me feel a lump in my throat to be going through this.”

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