At least 22 killed in fire at Guatemalan youth shelter

At least 22 teenage girls burned to death in a fire that police claim was arson. Guatemala's president declared three days of national mourning after the incident.

Photo by: Reuters
Photo by: Reuters

Complaints about abuse and living conditions at the overcrowded youth and children's shelter have been frequent.

Updated Mar 9, 2017

Guatemala's President Jimmy Morales has declared three days of national mourning after at least 22 teenage girls died in a fire that swept through a home for abused youth on Wednesday.

Hospitals reported that around 40 others are being treated for severe burn injuries.

The incident occurred at the state-run Virgen de Asuncion home for children and youth, in San Jose Pinula, 25 km southwest of Guatemala City.

"We will fully support the institutions responsible for investigating, and we will contribute to finding the truth," Morales said in a brief statement on national television Wednesday night.

TRT World spoke to Louisa Reynolds who is in Guatemala City following the developments.

Police suspect arson

The blaze started when a group of youths set fire to mattresses in the girls section of the facility, said Nery Ramos, head of Guatemala's national police.

The group had been isolated by authorities after a riot broke following an escape attempt on Tuesday.

Complaints about abuse and living conditions at the overcrowded shelter have been frequent.

The shelter had an official capacity of 500, but was housing at least 800 youths, Carlos Rodas, the head of Guatemala's social welfare agency, said.

Authorities were investigating whether those who started the blaze were the ones who had tried to escape, Ramos added.

"What happened is extremely serious, and even more so for the fact that it could have been avoided," Anabella Morfin, Guatemala's solicitor general, told a news conference.

A vigil for victims of a fire at the Virgen de Asuncion home in San Jose Pinula, Guatemala City, March 8, 2017. (Reuters)

Mayra Veliz, secretary general of the attorney general's office, pledged a transparent investigation into the cause of the blaze.

She said a group of disabled girls had been bussed to another shelter as detectives scoured the site.

Plagued by Latin America's worst rates of child malnutrition and street gangs that often prey on minors, Guatemala can be a traumatic place to grow up.

Conditions in the Central American nation's public institutions are often dismal with widespread overcrowding.

Victim's account

A 15-year-old girl being treated for minor injuries at Roosevelt Hospital said the uprising followed rumours of an escape attempt.

Some boys, or even young men who were still housed at the centre after turning 18, entered the girls' area, she said.

She said she fled to her dormitory's roof with others, fearing the boys would attack them.

Early Wednesday morning the fire began.

"I saw the smoke in the place. It smelled like flesh," the girl said.

On Tuesday night, police were sent in to quell the unrest over crowded living conditions at the home.

Many of the residents escaped during the riot, images on Guatemalan television news showed.

Family members react as they wait for news of their loved ones after a fire at the Virgen de Asuncion home in San Jose Pinula, on the outskirts of Guatemala City. March 8, 2017. (Reuters)

Rampant abuse

Outside the home on Wednesday, Andrea Palomo told reporters in tears that she had brought her 15-year-old son to the home to discipline him.

But he told her he was mistreated and complained that gang members there tattooed the children, she said. 

"We have been given no information since last night," Palomo said outside the home.

The home is run by the Ministry for Social Welfare and the Attorney General for Human Rights decides whether children are placed in the home or not.

It houses at-risk children who were victims of abuse as well as youths who completed sentences at youth detention centres and had nowhere else to go.

Jorge de Leon, Guatemala's human rights prosecutor, said at least 102 children had been located after escaping from the shelter, but more had managed to flee.

De Leon said younger children fled the shelter because they were being abused by the elder children.

An ambulance carrying the bodies of those killed in the fire exits the Virgen de Asuncion home, in San Jose Pinula, on the outskirts of Guatemala City, Guatemala, March 8, 2017. (Reuters)

"According to what they say, the bigger kids have control and they attack them constantly," de Leon wrote.

"They also complain that food is scarce and of poor quality."

He called on authorities "to evaluate whether it is appropriate to have these different groups concentrated in one place."

Attorney General Annabella Morfin said children in a protective situation should not be housed with children who have problems with the law, and called for an investigation of those responsible.

In 2013, a 14-year-old girl was murdered at the facility.

Investigators said the girl was strangled by one of the other residents.

TRTWorld and agencies