Accessibility Settings

color options

monochrome muted color dark

reading tools

isolation ruler
Smoke and Lies - LIghthouse Reports exposé
Smoke and Lies - LIghthouse Reports exposé

GIJN member Lighthouse Reports joined in a cross-border video investigation with US and Mexican news sites to uncover what really happened at a deadly fire in a migrant detention facility in Ciudad Juarez. Image: Screenshot, Lighthouse Reports



‘Smoke and Lies’: How Visual Forensics Disproved Official Accounts of a Deadly Migrant Center Fire 

In March 2023, 40 people, locked in a cell in a temporary detention center in Ciudad Juarez, asphyxiated in a fire — one of the deadliest incidents in a government-run migrant detention facility in the country’s history. Twenty-seven others suffered permanent damage, including amputations, lung damage, and PTSD.

The official narrative from the INM, Mexico’s national migration institute, centered on a missing key. Mexico’s then-president, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador repeated this line at a press conference in April 2023, saying that the cell could not be opened because the official with the key was not there when the fire broke out.

But Smoke and Lies, a months-long, cross-border visual forensics investigation by Netherlands-based Lighthouse Reports (a GIJN member), La Verdad – Periodismo de Investigación in Mexico, and El Paso Matters in Texas, released one year after the incident, disproved the official account. It showed that the deaths were preventable. Among other evidence, they uncovered a crucial fact — that the key never left the building.

The exposé reconstructs, from hours of CCTV and audio footage, thousands of documents, testimonials, legal materials, interviews, and a 3D model of the facility, the “crucial moments before, during, and after the fire,” including what staff were doing at that time.

At the International Press Institute (IPI) World Congress in Sarajevo, Lighthouse Reports founder and director Daniel Howden and open source investigator Jack Sapoch screened the 17-minute video they produced for investigation (see video below) and discussed visual forensics tools — and the more conventional reporting methods — that went into it.

After the event, GIJN also spoke to Sapoch in more detail about the methodology and how the team handled what he described as the investigation’s biggest challenge — choosing the most effective way to present their findings when they had the unusual problem of having too much — rather than too little — evidence material.

‘Too Much’ Evidence

The cross-border team worked on the investigation for around nine months, and published on March 19, 2024. Howden and Sapoch stressed that its local partners — La Verdad, an investigative journalism initiative focused on Ciudad Juarez, and El Paso Matters, an independent nonprofit news organization based in the US — were instrumental in obtaining some crucial raw evidence: hours of CCTV footage from inside the detention center.

“The only reason we were in a position to successfully get the footage was because of the cross-border, collaborative nature of the investigation,” explains Sapoch to GIJN. “Since we were working with local journalists with local sources and nuanced expertise, they were able to navigate the right course in that regard.”

But the challenge lay not just in obtaining leaked evidence. It was also in pinpointing crucial pieces of information — which appeared for mere seconds in many hours of footage — and piecing together a timeline from documents, accounts, and interviews, and ultimately, discerning the questions they wanted to answer.

Lighthouse Reports CCTV footage

The reporting team got access to nearly 240 hours of CCTV footage throughout the detention center, to recreate the moments before, during, and after the deadly fire. Image: Screenshot, Lighthouse Reports

“In some ways, the most challenging part of the whole investigation was understanding how best to navigate the completely huge amount of evidentiary material we had access to,” Sapoch told GIJN. “When we started this investigation, and indeed in most investigations I work on, we figured we would have the opposite issue and were brainstorming about how we might conduct the investigation with a smaller base of evidentiary materials.

“We needed to be smart about how we were spending our time, what specifically we wanted to try and determine, and how we wanted to present it. It was important for us to be guided by our editorial and research questions from the outset which was, essentially, ‘Why was this fire so deadly?’” Sapoch explains. This guiding question helped them stay focused on the many “watch-throughs” of nearly 240 hours of CCTV footage (accounting for all different angles).

The Timeline 

On March 27, 2023, more than 60 men were locked in a holding cell in a complex in Ciudad Juarez, where the US-Mexico border separates that city from its US neighbor, El Paso, Texas. The men had traveled north from Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Colombia, and Venezuela, and had been rounded up by Mexican immigration authorities as they waited to claim asylum. CCTV footage shows that at 8:58 p.m., a security guard locks the center’s exterior side door, which leads to the parking lot. This door would not be opened again.

Footage from inside the facility shows detainees talking to the attending security guards and immigration officials and getting increasingly agitated.  Around 9:20 p.m., some detainees started banging on the metal bars and — according to survivor accounts, in protest at the deteriorating cell conditions, lack of food, water, and threats of deportation — a small group of prisoners set fire to a row of vinyl sleeping mats they had placed against the cell bars.

Lighthouse Reports - prisoners in holding cell

CCTV footage showing migrants lined up against the holding cell wall nearest the door that would not be opened even after the fire began. Image: Screenshot, Lighthouse Reports

In the CCTV footage, the first licks of fire appear at 9:28 p.m. The detainees were left in the cell, with the toxic smoke engulfing the cramped space as they pleaded with staff to open the gate. But at no time did staff try to open the cell or the external building door after the fire started.

Footage and audio from elsewhere in the building show other staff searching for working fire extinguishers. But security guards and immigration officers merely left the cell area — contradicting later claims from a security supervisor that they had done everything possible to get the detainees out.

“What struck me was that staff were milling about, with no sense of urgency,” said Daniel Howden at the IPI event, describing the minutes after the fire broke out. 

Lighthouse Reports CCTV footage detention cell fire

Another angle of CCTV footage from the detention center, showing the area outside the holding cell door during the first moments of the fire. Image: Screenshot, Lighthouse Reports

A Venezuelan detainee, Brian F. Q. says in the video: “I ran to a corner, jumped, and shouted, ‘Help! Open the door!’ And I didn’t see any immigration personnel even attempting to open them.” Another Venezuelan detainee, Stefan Arango, said a guard remarked: “Good luck, guy,” before fleeing the area.

Most of the casualties died of smoke inhalation. The deadliness of the fire was amplified by a lack of sprinklers and working smoke detectors, and blocked exits. Video and audio footage also reveals that several fire extinguishers were missing from key locations, or not working.

Locating the Key

By watching and piecing together surveillance footage from the many cameras fixed inside and outside the migrant center, the team was able to follow the keys for the cell gate and exterior door — who had them, and when.

After a security guard locks the exterior door at 8:58 p.m. a coworker is seen putting that key on a desk in the administrative office, about 30 minutes before smoke obscures the cameras.

A security guard gives the key to the cell door to a colleague, who puts it in his pocket, where it can last be seen at 9:28 p.m. — seconds before flames become visible in the cell.

Lighthouse Reports - CCTV footage key on guard

Using CCTV footage from inside the facility, the reporting team could show that the key to the cell door (inside the red circle) was hanging from the pocket of a security guard just outside the cell only seconds before the fire. Image: Screenshot, Lighthouse Reports

Lighthouse Reports - Tracking the cell door key

Security staff are seen on CCTV footage using this key to lock and unlock the cell door throughout the day. This key is last seen on a security guard outside the cell only moments before the fire starts. Image: Screenshot, Lighthouse Reports

Ten minutes later, the camera recording the outside of the building shows a security guard handing the exterior door key to a security supervisor. In the next 15 minutes, while the fire rages, the supervisor hands it to an INM agent, who then hands it to a National Guard agent, who hands it back to detention center staff — but none of them use the key to open the door, which would have provided crucial ventilation.

The first firefighters arrived at the scene at 9:42 p.m., 14 minutes after the first flames became visible in the footage. It took the rescue workers another 13 minutes to get into the cell, which they had to break into. According to a firefighter’s testimony, only after they had broken in did an INM officer give them a set of keys.


“To be honest, when starting the investigation we didn’t plan or assume that we would be able to have access to this footage,” Sapoch tells GIJN, which he said allowed them to significantly expand the scope and thoroughness of their work.

They also analyzed thousands of pages of official documents, containing interviews and forensics reports, case files, and testimonies from survivors. La Verdad’s reporting, in addition to reconstructing clip by clip the minutes of the fire, also examined “the quest for justice in the wake of the fire” — based on the testimonies from eight survivors; interviews with emergency personnel; surveillance videos; an official investigation file, and facts that came to light during the criminal case. Eleven people have been charged — eight immigration officials, a private security guard, and two Venezuelan nationals who are thought to have set the fire.

El Paso Matters conducted interviews with the survivors, documenting how they have struggled to rebuild their lives in the US after being admitted under temporary humanitarian parole.

“Smaller newsrooms are closer to the story, but we can also support them,” said Howden at the IPI event. Crucially, working with these local partners helps them “directly address the people that are affected by the story we are reporting on,” he added.

Unpublished Audio: ‘We’re Not Going to Open the Door’

Howden and Sapoch told attendees at the IPI event that a big breakthrough came late in the investigation when they discovered they had been “sitting on” key evidence — audio files that two of the CCTV cameras had recorded. The audio captures an INM immigration agent talking on the phone during the first crucial minutes of the fire, remarking that they would not open certain doors:

“We have to open the door,” a man’s voice is heard saying.

“No, we’re not going to (inaudible)… We’re not going to open it for them. I told them already.”

The initial difficulties in obtaining the audio had to do with the “specific and obscure” proprietary video format the CCTV was packaged in, explained Sapoch — and the specific limitations in how they could play this footage back.

“The breakthrough we had was running playback from a specific camera within the CCTV footage that we had pretty much written off earlier on, since the angle wasn’t particularly useful to us,” said Sapoch. “We discovered late in the investigation that if you let the file play back in a specific video viewer for several minutes uninterrupted, only then would audio kick in.

“This was a 16-hour recording from an unuseful angle — basically facing a wall — so there wasn’t any point for us up until that point to watch the specific playback for two minutes uninterrupted. If you did playback at 2x speed or click around, the audio would not play back.

“In a different sense, we had to take care to actually transcribe the recorded conversations between staff, ” explains Sapoch. “They spoke with various slang and accents that only our local colleagues from La Verdad were able to sort out with nuance.”

Making the 3D Model

Using various reference sources, including floor plans and footage from the 15 fixed cameras in the building, the team built a 3D model of the detention center, to “convey the spatial relationship between evidence” by pinpointing the movements of staff and emergency responders and mapping locations of keys and fire extinguishers.

Animation of the 3D model helped to show specific events pieced together from CCTV footage such as staff searching for fire extinguishers. To build the 3D model, Sapoch worked in Blender — a free, open source, 3D-computer graphics software tool.

Lighthouse Reports - Recreated plan view of the detention center

The reporting team recreated a plan view of the detention center’s holding cell and offices. Image: Screenshot, Lighthouse Reports

Sapoch used a variety of methods to build the interior and exterior scenes. The exterior consisted mainly of “mesh” brought in from the Google Maps Tiles API (the same 3D data built into Google Earth), as well as supplemental terrain data; they modeled the interior manually by referencing floor plans and additional reference imagery from inside the building.

“This aspect was much more time-consuming, because we weren’t able to access the site ourselves and there were various inconsistencies with the floor plans that we had access to,” Sapoch says.

They had access to confidential documents from an unnamed source, and were also able to piece things together with a wealth of layout reference material. Along with the CCTV footage, they had access to post-fire walk-throughs of the building, which provided further information about specific room layouts.

“We were lucky in so far as with the access to all this material, we were able to precisely identify the placement of the CCTV cameras within the layout of the building and essentially bring those exact camera angles into Blender and project the footage as a matched background image,” he notes.

Sapoch adds: “An equally large amount of time needs to be dedicated in 3D reconstruction projects like this to more mundane aspects of the workflow —  like image matching, setting lighting and materials, animating camera movements, render tests, and so on. It’s not a small effort.”

“One small tip for understanding those areas that have been developed so far, which is heavily weighted towards Western countries, unfortunately, is to use the browser-based version of Google Earth, where there is a toggle to view these areas under the layers tab,” he adds.

The team also used Google Pinpoint to find relevant information from a trove of 20,000 documents. “I really can’t say enough nice things about Google Pinpoint and its utility for our project… It even allows you to keyword search handwritten texts,” he says.

Lighthouse Reports modeled detention center

Lighthouse Reports 3D model of holding cell

Thanks to access to CCTV footage, floor plans, and confidential photos from after the fire (top), the reporting team was able to build out a 3D model of the holding cell with precise detail (above). Image: Screenshot, Lighthouse Reports

Unanswered Questions

“Not everything can be solved by the visual aspects of an investigation,” Howden acknowledged to IPI Congress attendees. Despite the wealth of information and evidence, many questions remain unanswered. At some point “a decision must have been made not to open the door [but] it’s unclear who had the authority to open it — and why there wasn’t an attempt to open it,” Howden added.

The lack of clarity over who had authority during the incident is thanks to the various agencies and groups administering such border facilities — in this case, the National Guard, the INM, the Mexican police, and CAMSA, a private security firm. A subsequent joint investigation into the incident by ProPublica and the Texas Tribune suggested that the deadly fire incident was the “foreseeable result of landmark shifts in US border policies,” such as the outsourcing of immigration enforcement to Mexico.

According to La Verdad, the INM has not responded to questions arising from the investigation, nor to interview requests sent in writing to the lawyers and family members of imprisoned individuals involved in the fire. The criminal case has not yet gone to trial.

Alexa van SickleAlexa van Sickle is an associate editor at GIJN, and a journalist and editor with experience across online and print journalism, book publishing, and think tanks. Before joining GIJN, she was a senior editor for the foreign correspondence magazine Roads & Kingdoms. 

Republish our articles for free, online or in print, under a Creative Commons license.

Republish this article

Material from GIJN’s website is generally available for republication under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International license. Images usually are published under a different license, so we advise you to use alternatives or contact us regarding permission. Here are our full terms for republication. You must credit the author, link to the original story, and name GIJN as the first publisher. For any queries or to send us a courtesy republication note, write to

Read Next