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On International Women’s Day, March 8, a fire was set at a state home for children and youth in Guatemala, immediately killing 19 girls. Since then, at least another 21 have died as a result of their injuries and many more continue to be hospitalized.
Survivors have recounted that on March 7, several youth broke out of the Hogar Seguro Virgen de la Assunsión (Safe Home) in an attempt to escape the abusive conditions inside. Reports of extreme sexual violence, physical abuse, neglect, torture, and human trafficking have been documented for several years by children’s rights organizations and denounced with the Guatemala’s Human Rights Ombudsman’s office and at the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.
After the breakout, police were immediately called to round up the youth who escaped. Fifty-two girls were then locked inside a room; according to one of the survivors, the group of teenage girls started rioting the morning of March 8 after having been locked in the room all night, subject to continued verbal assaults by police outside the door, and prevented from leaving to use the bathroom. Protesting the sexual violence that they face on a daily basis, a mattress was set on fire in the room, setting the room ablaze with the girls inside. Despite pleas as the fire spread, riot police did not open the locked door nor move to allow the girls out. The death toll has now risen to at least 40 teenage girls, between the ages of 12 and 17.
Several state officials have been arrested on charges of culpable homicide, negligence, and child abuse; however, many Guatemalan organizations are pointing to crimes so severe to warrant investigations for crimes against humanity.
Anything but a safe home
The system for child welfare in Guatemala is chronically under-resourced and reports of systemic abuse are rampant. The Hogar Seguro is no exception. Under its roof are children from the ages of 12-17 who have been removed from their homes due to violence and abuse. Several are children with disabilities. Some are youth who had nowhere else to go. Opened in 2010, the center was built for a capacity of 500 children. At the time of the fire, there were over 800 children being housed there.
For more background to the fire, read Francisco Goldman’s account for the New Yorker.