At least 35 girls were killed after a fire broke out in a state-run home for children in Guatemala. They reportedly had been locked inside and were unable to escape.
“The girls were in a section of the rural shelter on lockdown,” NPR’s Carrie Kahn reports. “According to authorities, many had tried to escape on Tuesday night and were returned to the dormitories and locked in. On Wednesday morning, a mattress was lit on fire and the blaze quickly engulfed the wing holding the girls.”
Parents of the girls have been desperately trying to locate their children. Authorities say some of the bodies were so badly burned they can be identified only through DNA testing.
Nineteen girls died in the fire at the Virgin of the Assumption Safe House and 17 others died as a result of injuries, according to The Associated Press. Many others were still hospitalized.
The facility near Guatemala City is meant to house only 500 youths — but authorities said at least 800 were living there at the time of the fire, Carrie reports. She adds, “Many of the children at the shelter are abuse victims held as wards of the state while others are teens with criminal records. Allegations of abuse at the shelter were widespread.”
Maria Antonia Garcia, the grandmother of one of the victims, told the AP that her 14-year-old granddaughter said girls were beaten at the facility. Geovany Castillo, a father of a 15-year-old girl who survived, told the news service that his daughter “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.”
“The staff left the girls in an extremely reduced space, a 4-meter by 4-meter room, for 52 teenage girls,” the country’s deputy ombudsman for human rights, Claudia Lopez, told Reuters. “It was a terribly thought out decision.”
An employee of the Assumption Safe House told Reuters that many of the facility’s problems were due to inadequate staffing, not enough funding and judges sending too many young offenders to the home:
” ‘We had 15-19 new arrivals a day, every carer had 34 children to look after, and we were on one day on, one day off shifts of 24 hours because there were not enough staff,’ the employee said, adding she faced death threats and verbal abuse from her wards.”
Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales told reporters that government youth facilities are a “rigid system that has become insensitive” and that “our system must be thoroughly and decisively reformed.” He said there are 1,500 children in government facilities in Guatemala.