The afternoon was cold and starkly silent, broken only occasionally by passing cars honking in solidarity. A blue and white five-starred Honduran flag wavered in the breeze, one of many symbols marking the deaths this week of 39 immigrants who were trapped in a fire at a detention center in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico.
“It was the State,” read one poster in Spanish.
“No human being is illegal,” proclaimed another text held aloft by a Mexican immigrant.
The small but passionate group of demonstrators took up position Friday afternoon in front of the Mexican consulate in Los Angeles to protest what they decried as the inhumane immigration policies of the governments of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador and President Biden. The Guatemalan, Honduran, Salvadoran and Mexican immigrants gathered on Park View Street vented emotions over the tragedy.
Indignation. Sadness. Rage. Dread. Pain.
“It’s a shame,” lamented Francisco Moreno, executive director of the Los Angeles-based Council of Mexican Federations, over the conflagration in which 18 Guatemalans, seven Salvadorans, seven Venezuelans, six Hondurans and one Colombian lost their lives. More than two dozen other immigrants were injured in the blaze, the cause of which is under investigation. On Thursday, a Mexican court issued arrest orders for six people in relation to the fire, a move that has done nothing to assuage activists or the families of the dead.
Born in Michoacán, in west-central Mexico, Moreno is a veteran of protests against the anti-immigrant policies of former President Trump. Now he condemns the López Obrador administration for what he sees as its taking directives from the Biden administration in the same way that Mexico’s previous president, Enrique Peña Nieto, yielded to former President Obama, in Moreno’s view.
“Those responsible have to fall, and not only the jailers, the politicians have to fall, the people in charge of immigration policy in Mexico, because this is not fair,” he said.
Calling out for justice, the demonstrators assembled around a bronze statue of Salvadoran Archbishop Óscar Arnulfo Romero, whose assassination while celebrating Mass in March 1980 helped spur an unprecedented wave of migration from the Central American country to the United States.
Among the protesters was Salvador Sanabria, a Salvadoran activist and director of the El Rescate organization, who arrived in Los Angeles seeking asylum only a few days after the archbishop’s murder.
“It makes me indignant and terrified,” said Sanabria. “One wonders, with what mentality did those responsible make this happen when it could have been avoided?”
Activists and academics say that the tragedy in Ciudad Juárez is linked to the violence that has overwhelmed the border in recent years, as drug cartels and organized crime have transformed into vast human-smuggling chains, resulting in shootouts among rival gangs, kidnappings and the torturing of people traveling northward. During that time, successive U.S. administrations have increased pressure on Mexico to crack down on migrants to prevent them from entering the United States.
“Mexico has become the new wall,” said Sanabria, who said that last week’s deaths will send a deterrent message to others contemplating the arduous journey.
“It means that they don’t come to the northern border of Mexico, because if they cross and are arrested in the United States and deported to Mexico, is this what is going to happen to them?” Sanabria said, alluding to the detention center fire.
Since the summer of 2014, due to pressure exerted by President Obama, the Peña Nieto government implemented the Southern Border Program, a move that intensified militarization and surveillance along the border, resulting in 93,613 arrests being reported in the first 12 months.
The policy subsequently gave an incentive for human smugglers, known as “coyotes,” to follow more dangerous routes into the United States.
“Most of the migrant community have to cross through Mexico because it is the route we have to get here,” said José Bautista, a Honduran, although that meant putting his life at risk, he said.
Another demonstrator, Juanita Calel, who fled war-torn Guatemala for Los Angeles in 1996, said that people seeking better opportunities will continue to attempt the trek, regardless of the debt to smuggler that they pile up, or the dangers they face.
“What happened really makes me sad,” said the native of Huehuetenango, adding that, “I am more saddened by their relatives who remained in our country of origin and the debt they left behind.”
As the protest wrapped up, a scattering of attendees was left to wander, play and — in some cases — sleep among the tents used by the unhoused people who make their homes in MacArthur Park.