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Guatemala in mourning after blaze kills 22 girls in shelter

A firefighter looks at two of the 22 victims at a government-run children’s shelter in San Jose Pinula after fire swept the building east of Guatemala City © Guatemalan Volunteer Firefighters/AFP / HO

San José Pinula, Guatemala, Mar 8 – Guatemala declared three days of mourning after a blaze in a government-run children’s shelter killed at least 22 teenage girls and focused attention on allegations of sexual and other abuse in the facility.

All those killed were aged between 14 and 17.

Most died of burns in the fire in the Virgin of the Assumption Safe Home in San Jose Pinula, 10 kilometers (six miles) east of Guatemala City, officials said.

A firefighter looks at two of the 22 victims at a government-run children’s shelter in San Jose Pinula after fire swept the building east of Guatemala City © AFP / Anella RETA, Gustavo IZUS

A total of 38 other people were injured, 16 of them in critical condition, hospital officials said.

President Jimmy Morales said on national television that he had ordered the dismissal of the shelter’s director.

The blaze was believed to have started during an overnight rebellion in the center, which holds nearly double the 400 people it was designed to house. Some youths tried to escape, news reports said.

Morales said that before the fire, orders had been given to transfer some of the youths to other facilities because of the overcrowding.

“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.

Human rights activists held a vigil Wednesday night, lighting candles and placing flowers outside the shelter and in the main square in Guatemala City.

– A ‘time bomb’ –

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A survivor of a blaze in a government-run children’s shelter that killed at least 22 teenage girls embraces a relative in San Jose Pinula, east of Guatemala City © AFP / JOHAN ORDONEZ

“It was a ticking time bomb. This was to be expected,” one of the center’s former employees, Angel Cardenas, said outside.

He said he had lodged several warnings about conditions inside.

At the entrance of the shelter — 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 unattended.

“They don’t want to give any information at all,” said 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 hospitals to see if their relatives were there.

Relatives confront police outside a children’s shelter in San Jose Pinula, east of Guatemala City, where 22 teenage girls died in a fire © AFP / JOHAN ORDONEZ

Aguirre said she, too, had lodged complaints about how the center’s residents 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 gain custody of her siblings after their mother’s death four months ago.

Guatemalan media said the shelter’s occupants had revolted overnight and into Wednesday against alleged sexual abuse by staff, and over poor food and conditions.

The center, supervised by state authorities, hosts minors under age 18 who are victims of domestic violence or found living on the street.

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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.

– Calls to close shelter –

The government 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 center, and attribute administrative and criminal responsibility against those in charge of the center for not fulfilling their duty,” she said.

She noted that last year the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights had found in favor of several adolescents who had alleged mistreatment and sexual abuse in the shelter.

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.

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