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Victims of Juarez migration detention center fire still await restitution 6 months on

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Today marks six months since the deadly fire at a migration detention center in the Mexican border city of Ciudad Juarez. With dozens of people packed into a large holding cell, two migrants allegedly set fire to a mattress to protest inhumane conditions. Leaked CCTV footage showed that as the fire spread, the guards failed to open the cell doors. The blaze killed 40 people and left the lives of others in limbo. James Fredrick spoke to one of the survivors in Mexico.

JAMES FREDRICK, BYLINE: When he thinks back to that horrible night in March, he remembers being desperately thirsty. He asked the guard for a bottle of water.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Speaking Spanish).

FREDRICK: You want water? Give me 500 pesos, the guard said. That's about $30. If you don't like it here, another guard said, go back and complain in your own country. As migrants grew desperate, one threatened to light sleeping pads on fire. A guard responded.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Speaking Spanish).

FREDRICK: If you were going to do it, you'd have already done it by now.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Speaking Spanish).

FREDRICK: "I got really scared," he told me. He saw a fellow migrant set fire to a mattress. He hid in the back corner of the cell with his two cousins.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Speaking Spanish).

FREDRICK: "I inhaled smoke," he says.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Speaking Spanish).

FREDRICK: "I felt my insides burning and then everything went dark." We've been asked not to use the name of this 28-year-old from El Salvador because he fears retribution for speaking publicly. He and his cousins fled about a week before the fire. They were worried they'd be caught up in the government's controversial and indiscriminate crackdown on gangs.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Speaking Spanish).

FREDRICK: "Only God knows why he kept me alive," he says. A month later, he woke from a coma with a tube down his throat. He was confused. His lungs and kidneys were damaged, and he had third-degree burns on his arms and back. But there was worse news. His cousins had died in the fire. Lorena Cano, a lawyer from the nonprofit Institute for Women and Migration, offered to represent him and seven other survivors in the hospital because something was off.

LORENA CANO: (Through interpreter) What's happening with the Ciudad Juarez survivors is very unusual.

FREDRICK: After a major human rights violation like this one, the Mexican government has a special agency that's supposed to step in to make sure victims get medical, financial and other aid. But Cano says they've been invisible. Instead, the migration agency responsible for the migrants' deaths has taken control and prevented human rights lawyers like her from contacting many of the survivors.

CANO: (Through interpreter) What the administration wants is to reduce the political impact of this tragedy and close the case as quickly as possible.

FREDRICK: Neither the migration agency nor the victims' commission responded to NPR's questions. The head of Mexico's migration agency, Francisco Garduno, faces a criminal charge for failing to protect migrants in his custody.

EMILIO ALVAREZ ICAZA: (Speaking Spanish).

FREDRICK: Senator Emilio Alvarez Icaza says Garduno's refusal to resign is a scandal. And instead, Garduno petitioned a judge to drop the criminal charge. The judge recently denied that request. Senator Alvarez says the whole case is emblematic of Mexico's systematic abuse of migrants at a time when record numbers of migrants are crossing through the country on their way to the United States. A few days after our interview, the survivor of the fire got good news. He'd been granted humanitarian parole in the United States.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Speaking Spanish).

FREDRICK: "I just want to be in a safe country," he said, "where I don't have to live in fear."

For NPR News, I'm James Fredrick in Mexico City.

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James Fredrick