SAN JOSÉ PINULA — Guatemala declared three days of mourning after a blaze on Wednesday in a government-run children’s shelter killed 20 teenage girls and focused national attention on allegations of sexual and other abuse in the facilty.
All those killed were aged between 14 and 17.
Most appeared to have died of burns in the fire that occurred in the Virgin of the Assumption Safe Home in San Jose Pinula, 10 kilometres east of Guatemala City, officials said.
Dozens of survivors were treated for serious burns in several of the capital’s hospitals. One, Roosevelt Hospital, said it had 24 wounded, six of them in critical condition.
The blaze was believed to have started during an overnight rebellion in the packed centre, which holds nearly double the 400 people it was designed to house.
"They were serving food to the teenagers when some of them started a fire in a mattress and that’s how the fire was set," said Abner Paredes, a prosecutor defending children’s rights.
A ’time bomb’
"It was a ticking time bomb. This was to be expected," one of the centre’s former employees, Angel Cardenas, said outside.
He said he had lodged several warnings about conditions inside.
At the entrance of the facility -- whose imposing, barbed wire-topped concrete wall showed no sign of the drama inside -- crying relatives crowded the entrance. They were searching for news of the children kept there. Police blocked access to them and to journalists.
A few survivors were seen hugging kin on the pine tree-lined road. But many other family members were left in the dark.
"They don’t want to give any information at all," stormed Rosa Aguirre, a 22-year-old street vendor who had rushed from the capital to see if her two sisters, aged 13 and 15, and her 17-year-old brother were among the casualties.
She said many frustrated people had gone to the hospitals to see if their relatives were there.
Aguirre said she, too, had lodged past complaints about how the center’s charges were treated, but received no attention.
She said brawls broke out inside often, and her brother was sometimes put in a dark isolation cell nicknamed the "chicken coop."
She said she had tried in vain to be given custody of her siblings after their mother’s death four months ago.
Guatemalan media said the shelters’ occupants had revolted overnight and into Wednesday against alleged sexual abuse by staff, and over poor food and conditions.
The United Nations children’s fund UNICEF called the fire and the deaths a "tragedy." It added in a Twitter post that "these children and adolescents must be protected."
The centre, supervised by state authorities, hosts minors under age 18 who are victims of domestic violence or found living on the street.
They are sent there by court order and are under the responsibility of the social welfare ministry.
The shelter has been the target of multiple complaints alleging abuse.
Dozens of children have run away in the past year, reportedly to escape ill treatment inside.
Reports that could not be verified said that dozens of residents had attempted to flee the facility late Tuesday.
Calls to close shelter
Guatemala’s government expressed its distress at the deadly fire and decreed three days of mourning.
A prosecutor for upholding children’s rights, Hilda Morales, told reporters she was requesting the shelter be closed due to welfare authorities’ inability to manage it.
"We are going to ask for the immediate closure of the centre, and attribute administrative and criminal responsibility against those in charge of the centre for not fulfilling their duty," she said.
She noted that last year the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights had found in favour of several adolescents who had alleged maltreatment and sexual abuse in the shelter.
She stressed that those sent to the centre should receive "better protection" than in their families where they were abused.
Another prosecutor tasked with protecting children in the country, Harold Flores, told the radio station Emisoras Unidas that since last year complaints had surged against the shelter over minors fleeing to escape alleged sexual abuse there.
He said an investigation was under way to find the reasons and those responsible for Wednesday’s tragedy.
In Guatemala’s Congress, lawmakers held a minute of silence for the victims of the fire before demanding those in charge of the center be dismissed. — AFP