Guatemala mourns as death toll continues to soar after shelter fire

At least 35 girls died in the blaze at the centre for young people who had been abused and for juvenile offenders. More fatalities are expected as authorities continue to trade blame.

Photo by: AP
Photo by: AP

A woman who learned her child died in a fire, back to camera, is held by her sister outside the Virgen de la Asuncion children's shelter in San Jose Pinula, Guatemala.

Updated Mar 10, 2017

Casualties continue to mount after youths at a shelter in San Jose Pinula near Guatemala City set fire to mattresses in protest against rampant abuse and overcrowding at the institution on Wednesday. At least 35 girls had perished by Thursday, according to one parent, and more fatalities are expected as dozens of youth sustained life-threatening injuries. 

Officials are still investigating the fire at the long-criticized shelter on the outskirts of Guatemala's capital which houses troubled and abused boys and girls as well as juvenile offenders. Someone ignited mattresses in a dormitory that held girls who had been caught the day before during a mass breakout attempt, authorities said.

"I've been doing this for 29 years. What I saw yesterday was a scene from Dante," said Juan Antonio Villeda, director of the San Juan de Dios hospital, where 17 victims with extremely serious burns were being treated.

Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales blamed the tragedy on the courts for ignoring a request to transfer juvenile offenders out. However, the shelter was notorious for all sorts of problems, including rape, overcrowding, food shortages and inmate violence. 

Victims were brought to hospitals by the dozens, some partially naked, with large flaps of skin hanging from their bodies.

More than a day later, distraught parents haunted hospitals and the morgue, passing scraps of paper scrawled with the names of loved ones they hoped to find.

TRT World's Shonela Lupuwana speaks to devastated parents and the authorities in San Jose Pinula.

Geovany Castillo said his 15-year-old daughter Kimberly suffered burns on her face, arms and hands but survived. She was in a locked-in area where girls who took part in the escape attempt had been placed, he said.

"My daughter said the area was locked and that several girls broke down a door, and she survived because she put a wet sheet over herself," Castillo said.

"She said the girls themselves set the fire," he said, adding: "She said the girls told her that they had been raped and in protest they escaped, and that later, to protest, to get attention, they set fire to the mattresses."

Another surviving 15-year-old girl said that male residents had apparently been able to enter at least some of the girls' dormitories before the fire. She and others took refuge on a roof for fear of being attacked and saw the fire break out in a nearby building.

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

A sign in Spanish that reads “Guatemala is not a safe home” hangs from the gate of Presidential House above an artists remembrance of the victims. President Jimmy Morales issued blamed the courts for ignoring a request to transfer juvenile offenders out. (AP)

The state-run Virgin of the Assumption Safe House has long been the subject of complaints about abuse, inadequate food and crowded and unsanitary conditions behind its 30-foot wall. The shelter was built to hold 500 young residents but housed at least 800 at the time of the fire.

Authorities said DNA tests might be necessary to identify some remains. A doctor at one hospital asked parents waiting outside for information to come back with photographs, dental records and details about tattoos or other distinctive features.

Relatives waited for the release of the names of those who died in a fire at the shelter, outside the morgue where the bodies are being identified in Guatemala City. (AP)

Piedad Estrada, a street vendor, arrived with a photograph of her 16-year-old daughter. She said the teen was pregnant and had been at the shelter for nine days because she ran away from home.

Estrada searched at the hospitals and the morgue but got no information. She showed the photo to workers at one hospital, but they said they had five girls who were completely bandaged so they could not be sure.

"They only took her from me to burn her," Estrada said. "I blame the state for what has happened."

Guatemala has Latin America's worst rates of child malnutrition and street gangs like the Mara Salvatrucha prey on minors, making it an often dangerous place to grow up. The Central American nation's public institutions are underfunded, racked by corruption and widespread overcrowding.

TRTWorld and agencies