Guatemala 2017: After teenage girls burnt to death on IWD, demands grow to end their violent abuse Print E-mail
 ~ March 17 2017

More than a tragic accident: Guatemalan organizations denounce the fire that killed 40 teenage girls at a state-run home

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, SCROLL DOWN to read Francisco Goldman.s account for the New Yorker

An outcry from civil society
Immediately, organizations and individuals participating in the Women's Day march began denouncing the fire as a massacre, attributing responsibility to the State for its failure to protect the lives of women and girls in Guatemala and for the many ways that it actively participates in targeting women and carrying out acts of femicide.

On March 9, people gathered outside of the Presidential Palace to denounce the massacre. (Rode Díaz)

The fountain in Guatemala City.s central square is painted red. (CPR Urbana)

On March 21, people in Guatemala joined the international day of action to denounce the massacre. (Credit: Prensa Comunitaria)

Messages of solidarity from across the world also came pouring in, with demonstrations taking place in front of the Guatemalan embassy in several different countries. See photos and videos from CMI-Guatemala HERE

 A violence rooted in history
The images of young women locked in a room and left to burn are stark in Guatemala. HIJOS - Sons and Daughters for Identity and Justice Against Forgetting and Silence - released a statement in the days after the fire, honoring the legacy of people who have resisted state oppression and abuse and pointing to the many moments in history during which the response to rebellion has been fire.

"For as long as we can remember, the sons and daughters of Guatemalan peoples - the indigenous, workers, campesinos, the exploited, the impoverished - who have dared to denounce the oppression of the State have been subjected to scorn... In Quiché as in the Verapaces, in Chimaltenango and Panacal, Huehuetenango, in Emaús, and against the campesinos who protested at the Spanish Embassy, everywhere; the response of the State to its people, exiled into misery, has been to set them on fire.

Thousands of our mothers rose up against the abuses of big bosses and large landowners, just as their grandmothers had. Using their example, waves of terror were kept at bay for years as guerrilla fighters, but this was not the future they wanted us to inherit...Today, like yesterday, the punishment for dissidence and resistance to a system that imposes the logic of capital is fear, terror, and fire. Today, children are burned alive; yesterday, a massacre at the Spanish Embassy, razed communities, and crimes committed by the Army. Today, violence and sexual slavery of girls; yesterday, Sepur Zarco. Today, children are kidnapped from their families; yesterday, children of massacre victims are enslaved by officials and soldiers of a genocidal army." Read the full statement in Spanish.

Likewise, dozens of feminist Guatemalan organizations and individuals signed on to a statement condemning the atrocities and putting it into a historical context.

"We have spent too many years denouncing atrocities, in which defenseless people have been savagely murdered by a state that sets aside the needs of the majority, putting itself at the service of a patriarchal, racist, and exclusionary elite that has maintained power through a collapsed political system.

The fatal fire that killed more than 40 girls and young people in the "Hogar Seguro" Virgen de la Asunción, is the pinnacle of an accumulation of violence that the girls themselves characterized on multiple occasions as hell. Officials had been singled out for committing abuses, rape, torture, and a series of assaults that led to such a disastrous outcome. The allegations and the rebellion of the girls were punished by the death penalty, as they punish anyone who opposes this regime of inequality and corruption.

We condemn this despicable crime that we consider Institutionalized Femicide, given that State agents are involved in acts of extreme violence against the same girls they were obligated to protect and guarantee decent living conditions. This crime generates terror and affects society as a whole. It cannot remain in impunity."

Updates to the case
  • * Former Secretary of Social Welfare Carlos Rodas, former Deputy Minister Anahí Keller Zabala, and the director of the Hogar Seguro Santos Torres Ramírez have been arrested and charged with culpable homicide, negligence, and child abuse.
  • * On March 14, members of Congress Sandra Morán and Leocadio Juracán filed a complaint with the Public Prosecutor.s Office, denouncing President Jimmy Morales for having committed torture, extrajudicial execution, abuse of authority, and breach of duties. The committee is asking for the removal of the President.s immunity so that he can be fully investigated for the aforementioned crimes, and further investigations into the responsibility of the members of the National Civil Police and the workers at the Hogar Seguro at the time.

Calls to action
In the aftermath, several of NISGUA.s partner organizations are calling for a full investigation into the crimes committed and immediate protection for the girl survivors and other children and youth who were being housed at the Hogar Seguro. In the statement released by HIJOS, they demand that the justice system regard the survivors as protected witnesses and carry out a full investigation into reports of human trafficking, abuse at the home, and possible crimes against humanity. In addition, they are calling for:
  • The rights of survivors to be guaranteed and that they receive the necessary care     and protection corresponding to the traumatic events that they have suffered
  • The International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) to intervene in the investigation and immediately take the appropriate legal action to preserve forensic evidence at the crime scene and detain those responsible under the charges of femicide
  • Clarity on the following: Why the National Civil Police were illegally in control of the center at the time of the fire and why they did not let firefighters access to the site, nor let the girls out; why the National Body for the Prevention of Torture did not present the complaints they had received to the Public Prosecutor's office; why the National Council of Adoptions did not carry out monitoring of the Hogar Seguro, despite complaints; why the Public Prosecutor.s office did not act in an official capacity in light of the accusations that the Human Rights Ombudsman's office had previously documented.

Other organizations are calling for a thorough investigation into all of the public institutions that make up the Comprehensive Protection System for Children, to verify the level of responsibility each entity holds for the conditions at the Hogar Seguro prior to the fire, the death of the girls, and afterwards. Organizations are calling for a UN commission to be formed to investigate the incident and the ongoing abuse of children and youth in state-run facilities, that includes the presence of the UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Women and the Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Children.

In the statement signed by feminist organizations in Guatemala, they call on society to eradicate all forms of violence. "In every space and moment, [we ask that you] contribute to the eradication of all forms of violence, from derogatory gestures, insults, mistreatment, torture, disappearances, and murders. Each individual in their capacity at their home, work and school environment, religious institution, and social organization, has the responsibility to actively participate so that all forms of violence leave our daily life. Each person has a responsibility to work towards a culture of demilitarization and demand an in-depth disarmament of our society. Do not stop demanding an end to impunity and corruption."

NISGUA stands with the families of those lost, with those fighting for accountability and repair, and with all who struggle to root out the structures of patriarchal violence and end abuse against women and girls. Follow the hashtags #NiUnaMenos, #LasNinasDeGuatemala, and #FueElEstado to follow the conversation on Twitter and stay tuned for calls from our partners for action.
March 19, 2017

The Story Behind the Fire That Killed Forty Teen-Age Girls in a Guatemalan Children's Home

By Francisco Goldman

 The coffin of Kimberly Mishel Palencia Ortiz, a seventeen-year-old who was among forty teen-age girls killed by a fire at a state-run children.s home in Guatemala.(JOHAN ORDONEZ / AFP / GETTY)

The number of teen-age girls who died when a fire broke out on the morning of March 8th in a state-run home for minors on the outskirts of Guatemala City now stands at forty. Those who perished were among fifty-two girls who.d been confined to a schoolroom at Hogar Seguro Virgen de la Asunción after a night in which they'd rioted and run away, before being captured by police and brought back to the home. Nineteen died at the scene of the schoolroom blaze, and the others in the two Guatemala City hospitals that received the injured. Almost immediately, Guatemalan and international news reports began to speculate that the girls might have been locked in the schoolroom, perhaps as punishment.

Many blamed the school.s teachers and "monitors." A woman who lived near the children.s home told the online publication Nómada that she.d witnessed some of the riot on March 7th, and had seen girls "throwing rocks at their teachers and at the police and tauntingly shouting, ‘Rape us here, in front of everybody! Come on and rape us again here, if that's what you want!. " The witness continued, "That was a girls' rebellion. Anyone who lives around here knows that place is a hell." In 2013, several staff members at the school were found guilty of sexual abuse. Last year, a family-court judge found that the home's practices ­which included punishments that amounted to torture ­were in violation of children's human rights, and ordered that improvements be made.

In the wake of the fire, the revelation that the Secretariat for Social Welfare had failed to respond to these orders led to widespread criticism of the department, and of Guatemala's President, Jimmy Morales. Even before the deaths, Morales, a former television comedian, was regarded by many as the hapless head of a uniquely corrupt government. (In 2015, his predecessor, Otto Pérez Molina, went to prison on corruption charges.) Morales was particularly criticized for having named two close friends, including a former producer of his comedy show, to leadership posts in the Secretariat for Social Welfare while also slashing its funding. In a press conference the evening of the fire, the Secretary of Social Welfare, Carlos Rodas, refused to resign or to accept any blame. In his speech, he claimed that the girls had sharp weapons hidden in their hair. He said that President Morales had ordered the police to return the girls to the home after their escape attempt, and that all attempts at dialogue with the girls had been exhausted. Morales hadn't come to the press conference, Rodas said, because "he was attending to urgent matters of state."

I arrived in Guatemala City on Friday, March 10th, on business unrelated to the fire. My close friend, the Guatemalan journalist Claudia Méndez Arriaza, met me at the airport, and, with a few hours to spare, compelled by journalistic curiosity, we drove an hour to Hogar Seguro Virgen de la Asunción.

The home is one of several institutions in Guatemala for youths who have been orphaned, abandoned, or turned over by parents who lack the means to support them. As recent newspaper reports revealed, some of the residents. parents had felt that their daughters were in need of discipline; others wanted to protect them from the notorious mara street gangs that terrorize poor urban neighborhoods. The court had taken some of the girls into custody because they'd been abused by family members, or because they were living on the streets. The youths at Virgen de la Asunción were not deemed to be criminals - ­adolescents in Guatemala judged to be "in conflict with the law" are sent to juvenile-detention centers ­although minors who've served their sentences are sometimes put into a safe children's home like Virgen de la Asunción if they have nowhere else to go.

Virgen de la Asunción, meant to accommodate five hundred residents, was in fact responsible for approximately eight hundred youths, who were housed in separate areas for older girls, older boys, younger children, and those with disabilities and illnesses. The smallest area, called Princesas, was for pregnant youths awaiting transfer to another home in Quetztaltenango, the second-largest city in Guatemala. Some of the smaller children, Nómada later reported, had been born in the home to adolescent girls who may have been impregnated by the boys who were also interned there, or by staff. As we have also learned, parents who decided that they wanted to recover their daughters from the home were sometimes faced with a wall of bureaucracy, or were extorted in return for their children's release.

When Claudia and I arrived at the home, two young policewomen, one tall and animated, one shorter and quieter, were standing outside the building. They shared what they'd seen and heard on March 8th in the manner of girls excitedly discussing a horror movie. At one point, the taller policewoman, describing the teen-aged girls as "walking like zombies," aflame, put her own arms out and lurched from side to side. Her colleague, she said, was still traumatized by the smell of burning flesh. The fire had broken out at about nine in the morning, they explained, just as one group of policewomen was relieving those who'd been guarding the girls overnight. The taller policewoman described rushing to the windows of the schoolroom to pass plastic bags filled with water inside. The shorter policewoman then showed us photographs on her cell phone, the kind also circulating on social media ­of burned and blackened bodies, many in bluejeans, amid charred wreckage. When asked why the girls hadn't been let out, or if they knew who had held the key to the door, the policewomen fell silent.

An indigenous couple from Chimaltenango, their faces deeply lined, were also waiting out front. They'd had four children in the home and had recovered only three, but they seemed sure that their missing child wasn't among those who.d been shut in the schoolroom. As we spoke, the home's metal doors would occasionally open to let out small groups of teen-age boys, who were being transferred to other homes and institutions. One boy carried a large stuffed animal, a dog, under his arm. It was unclear how many children were still inside, how many had successfully escaped on the night of March 7th, or who might be missing; the home doesn't have a computerized database.

On Sunday night, Claudia and I spoke to a judge who asked that we not name her; she said that a recent law in Guatemala forbids judges from speaking to the press. She was part of the family-court system that has jurisdiction over Guatemala's juvenile-detention centers and children.s homes and shelters. She told us that she'd heard that sixty-two children from Virgen de la Asunción were unaccounted for. She believed that some had died, or even been murdered, before the fire. The judge also told us that the girls from the home were being prostituted, although it wasn't clear by whom.

The mother of Siona Hernandez, who died alongside dozens of other teen-age girls in the fire at Virgen de la Asunción, is pictured at her daughter.s wake.  (JOHAN ORDONEZ / AFP / GETTY)

I was supposed to fly back to New York on Monday, March 13th, but because of a snowstorm my flight was delayed by two days. On Monday, both the Secretary and Sub-Secretary for Social Welfare, Carlos Rodas and Anahy Keller, were arrested, along with Santos Torres, the director of Hogar Seguro Virgen de la Asunción. All three were charged with involuntary manslaughter, abuse of minors, and breach of duty. Torres insisted that it was the police who.d been in possession of the key to the schoolroom door.

It had emerged that the office of the government's Procurator for Human Rights had received forty-five reports of abuses at the home from 2012 to 2016, and passed them on to the Public Ministry, which had not responded. In October last year, two rapporteurs of the Guatemalan Congress.s Office of Torture Prevention wrote to Attorney General Thelma Aldana; they claimed that the director of the home at that time, Brenda Chamán, had confessed to knowing that girls had been raped there. The rapporteurs asked Aldana­who, working in tandem with the U.N. Commission Against Organized Crime and Impunity in Guatemala, or CICIG, has carried out numerous high-profile prosecutions, including that of former President Pérez Molina­to open an investigation. She passed their request to the Public Ministry prosecutors responsible for investigating such complaints. On Monday, Aldana ordered an investigation into the prosecutors who may have received those denunciations of abuse and not responded to them, saying that if they are found guilty of negligence they will be subject to administrative and even criminal penalties.

Attorney General Aldana is a respected figure in Guatemala and internationally. Unlike, say, in Mexico, the Attorney General and Public Ministry in Guatemala are autonomous not only on paper but in practice. Last year, the United States D.E.A. discovered that organized crime, and perhaps political figures, were plotting to assassinate Aldana; she now moves around Guatemala City accompanied by a security team numbering dozens. As campaigns on social media reveal, the same political and criminal powers that have wanted to see Aldana eliminated are already using the tragedy against her, exploiting the popular outrage over the deaths to try to weaken her authority or force her resignation.

The same day the arrests were made, Claudia contacted a legal counsellor who was part of an official group that had conducted inspections of the government's children's homes and detention centers before the fire, and that had been carrying out independent investigations after it. That afternoon, Claudia and I found ourselves sitting in a café, leaning forward over a cell phone, hands cupped to our ears, listening to audio recordings that the legal counsellor had shared with us. The recordings were of interviews with three of the surviving girls, two aged seventeen and one eighteen, conducted in Roosevelt Hospital, in Guatemala City, on March 10th. One of the girls was in stable condition; the other two, with burns over seventy-five and eighty per cent of their bodies, were in critical condition. Within a few days, all three were moved to the United States for treatment.

The girl in the first interview, which opens with a barrage of questions, maintains the same even cadence throughout her testimony. "I'm going to tell only what I remember," she says, describing how, following the riot, she, along with other girls and boys from the home, had run for "kilometres and kilometres," with police in pursuit, into the hilly woods that surround Virgen de la Asunción, before the police found them. "As soon as they captured us, they beat us up," she says. "The policeman who caught me told me to get down on my knees and to put my hands on my head. He put a pistol to my head, he said he didn't care that I was female and a minor. They brought us back to the home, and they handcuffed us real tight."

Instead of being returned to their dorms, the runaway girls and boys were made to wait outside. In a handwritten statement signed by more than a dozen members of the school staff on the night of the riots, the monitors, explaining why they had not returned the girls to the building, as per President Morales.s directive, wrote, "We don't agree that they should be let back inside, given that during the short time they were outside they robbed and beat up innocent people, took drugs, and had sexual relations with each other. Their return puts the rest of the population, who decided not to take part in those events, at risk."

The youths had tried to sleep on the grass, and then, at one in the morning, they were finally allowed back into the building. The boys returned to their dorms; the girls were taken to a schoolroom, where they were given mattresses but no blankets. The room was locked and guarded through the night by policewomen from the National Civil Police. In the morning, the injured girl explains in her interview, "they woke us and brought us breakfast, everything was calm." But when some of the girls asked to go to the bathroom, the police refused to open the door. The girls got angry and put mattresses over the windows so that the police couldn't see inside. She says that three girls caused the fire, and that she's been told that one of those girls is dead. As the blaze grew, the girls asked for help from the police. "One of the police said, ‘Let these wretches suffer. They were good at escaping, now they can be good at enduring pain.. " She adds, "They were watching how we caught on fire, but they were not going to open the door." The school staff tried to intervene. "We'd been mistreated by some of them before, but when they saw that the situation was serious, they began to spill their tears right there," she says. "Tears, but why were they spilling them! Because they were scared."

The girl in the second recording similarly describes how she had escaped, gotten lost in the woods, and been found by the police, who beat her, held a pistol to her head, and sprayed her and her companions with what might have been pepper spray. "Our eyes really stung," she says. In the morning, "we asked the police to please take us to the bathroom, and the police didn't want to let us out. They told us to rot." She describes the girls having built "a little house" with mattresses "so that they could do their necessities inside." When one of the girls set fire to one of the mattresses, which were twenty years old and made of thin cotton, the flames quickly spread. "All of us, we all began to shout to the police to let us out, that we were burning. The police told us they didn't care, that just like we'd been good for running away, that we should be good for putting up with the fire." She recalls seeing one girl "in flames, and she asked me for help. That's when I fainted." When she woke up, she recalls, "I did everything I could to get up and walk, but the police, seeing that I was burning and choking, started to hit me. They told me that I couldn't leave, and beat me. Then some monitors threw water on me because my face was burning."

Unlike the girl in the first two recordings, the girl in the third hadn't rioted or run away; she had found herself in the schoolroom after trying to retrieve her little sister. Speaking in a tired, hoarse voice, she says that the riot had begun after the girls were shut in a dormitory for three days. "They wouldn't let us out for anything," she says. "They kept us like caged dogs." During the riot, she recalls, girls climbed up onto the buildings. roofs and smashed windows; boys from the San Gabriel sector of the home joined them. She also mentions that the girls locked in the schoolroom had "gasoline" - ­the counsellor suggested that it might have been paint thinner, used for getting high. When asked if she's had any news of her sister, she says, "No."

All three girls agree that it was the police who shut them in the room; the monitors only returned from attending to children in the other dorms after the fire started. But it is not yet known who decided to lock them inside, who was in possession of the key that could have saved their lives, and why, when the girls were screaming for help, nobody opened the schoolroom door. Was it malice, or homicidal intent, or some kind of accident? Why were only the girls locked up, while the boys were allowed to return to their quarters? And what, exactly, had been going on at the school that made the girls so desperate to escape?

The source who gave us the recordings told us that Virgen de la Asunción was sometimes guarded by just one person at night, and that the girls. customary dorm area had a side door that he suspected the maras might have used to take girls out for the night. (He said that he had seen the initials "M.S.," for Mara Salvatrucha, tattooed on the feet of two of the hospitalized girls, although the tattoos might have pre-dated the girls' arrival at the home.)

María Eugenia Villareal, of ECPAT, an international N.G.O. that tracks and fights the sexual abuse and trafficking of minors, has been helping with the efforts to relocate hundreds of minors from Virgen de la Asunción to other homes and shelters. When I spoke to her, Villareal expressed concern that none of the surviving youths were receiving trauma counselling. She had spent the last two days testifying before various Guatemalan congressional committees about the conditions of state children.s homes, including Virgen de la Asunción. She didn't mince her words. The monitors at the home "were abusing the girls, they sold them drugs, and they took some of them out at night to prostitute them," she said. She mentioned an article in El Periódico that had been accompanied by a photograph of monitors who had worked at Virgen de la Asunción: men with pistols in their belts and rifles over their shoulders, some holding beers and grinning at the camera. "It doesn't matter what the children endure, because they're indigenous or extremely poor," Villareal said, summing up Morale'.s attitude to the deaths. "This is why so many try to migrate to the United States. It's because they're fleeing the violence of the state, of their communities, of their families. Every type of violence is present here."

On Tuesday night, at the San Juan de Dios hospital, I met Dr. Edwin Bravo, who had just returned from Galveston, Texas, where he'd travelled with three of the survivors to the Shriners Hospital for Children there. He was wearing a black fleece bearing the initials "U.T.M.B.," for the University of Texas Medical Branch, which he.d bought there to keep warm; he.d left Guatemala in just his medical scrubs. Bravo was proud of how his hospital had treated the seventeen patients it had received, explaining how his team had started to set up an emergency burn and trauma unit as soon as he.d received news of the fire at the children.s home. Most of the girls were so badly burned, not only on their skin but also in their breathing passages and lungs, that they'd had to be put into induced comas. He had reached out to colleagues at Shriners Hospital.s renowned burn unit, which had immediately offered help. At Shriners, he'd seen how teams of surgeons immediately began cleaning the girls' wounds, preparing them to receive synthetic skins. Now he was back in Guatemala, briskly walking us through the halls of a hospital where resources were clearly far more limited. Bravo exuded competence and compassion. His last patient from Hogar Seguro Virgen de la Asunción was leaving that night, for a hospital in Cincinnati; she would be accompanied by another Guatemalan doctor. She was unconscious, and almost entirely wrapped in gauze bandages and blue robes, but I could see patches of her brown face, her toes. Bravo knew her name but little else. Nobody had come to claim her, to visit or to ask after her. She was alone, a poor Central American girl headed to the United States to receive a new skin, and perhaps the chance of a new life.

Francisco Goldman is a contributing writer for, and the author of "The Interior Circuit: A Mexico City Chronicle."