The hundreds of Guatemalan teenagers in the “safe home” were among society’s most vulnerable. They hailed from broken families and troubled pasts. They battled mental illness, abandonment and abuse.
On Tuesday night, after years of complaints that went unresolved, dozens of the residents stormed the gates of the shelter, carrying out a mass escape. Riot police quelled the uproar, returning many of the residents to the facility, where supervisors locked them in their dormitories as punishment.
It was inside one of these dorms that a teenage girl made a final, desperate bid to be heard.
At about 9 a.m. Wednesday, as other residents ate their breakfast, she set her mattress on fire, according to early reports from authorities. Outside, the residents and staff heard the screams. One resident said she heard a girl cry out that she was going to sacrifice herself “so that everyone would know what they were living inside.”
The blaze quickly spread through the dormitory, enveloping more than 40 girls in smoke and flames.
“By the time the room was unlocked, it was too late,” Leonel Dubón, director of a child advocacy group in Guatemala, told The Washington Post.
Nineteen of the girls, ages 13 to 17, died at the site, their bodies so burned that families and officials struggled to identify them. About 40 others were transported to area hospitals, where three more died, the prosecutor’s office confirmed Wednesday night. Several others remained in critical condition.
A wave of anguish swept over the small, impoverished Central American country. The deaths prompted the president, Jimmy Morales, to call for three days of national mourning and the cancellation of all public activities, “given the magnitude of this national tragedy.” The director of the shelter was dismissed, the government announced, promising a thorough investigation of the fire.
The deaths were agonizing not just because the victims were so young and vulnerable, but because the government could have — and should have — prevented them, relatives and human rights advocates said. One local newspaper referred to the tragedy with the words: “The cries that many heard but no one heeded.”
On numerous occasions, as early as 2013, Guatemala’s human rights commission had recommended that the shelter close, due to its overcrowded, inadequate conditions, Abner David Paredes Cruz, a youth advocate at Guatemala’s human rights office, said in an interview with The Post.
Only a few months ago, a judge ordered that the facility begin to transfer its residents back to their families and to other shelters in order to eventually shut down. Still, the shelter — run by the state’s social welfare agency — remained open. Though it had begun slowly moving out residents, not enough was done. “There were no protocols for enforcement,” Paredes said.
“On International Women’s Day, these young women died due to the state’s lack of action,” Paredes said. “It’s a situation as grave as this one that draws the attention to what needs to change, to what Guatemalan children are living.”
Guatemala has one of the highest rates of chronic malnutrition in the world, at 47 percent, and is afflicted with poverty, low levels of education, corruption and violent crime. The troubled lives of those taken to the Virgin of the Assumption Safe Home (as the name translates into English) reflected the poor living conditions facing some of the nation’s youth.
In government records and local media reports, residents and their families described an institution plagued with overcrowding and abuse.
The facility housed about 800 residents in a space meant for 500, and served as a shelter for many who had already finished serving criminal sentences and had no families or homes to return to.
As a result, former convicted felons were sometimes placed in the same living spaces as children recovering from sexual abuse or suffering from mental illness.
“Children from the street, children who had been in gangs, children with disabilities, it was a mix of many populations with many difficulties,” said Dubón, director of the child advocacy group El Refugio de la Niñez.
The complex, surrounded by trees and a 30-foot-wall, consists of multiple buildings and dormitories. Residents sometimes lacked proper hygiene, clothing, shoes and beds — many had to sleep on decrepit mats on the ground, according to the November 2016 human rights commission report. At one point, residents alleged there was a lockup known as the “chicken coop” where adolescents were physically punished, according to local press accounts.
A year or two ago, six girls were reportedly locked in a small room, measuring about 6 by 6 feet, as punishment. Some of the girls were not given their required psychiatric medications. During that time, one of the girls smothered another with a scarf, killing her.
“We are all responsible for this situation, for not reacting in time,” Dubón said. “It’s necessary for the system to transform because if not, children will keep dying.”
Jorge de Leon, Guatemala’s human rights prosecutor, said in a statement that at least 102 children had been found after fleeing the shelter but more had managed to escape. He said younger children left the shelter because “the bigger kids have control, and they attack them constantly.”
Dubón said he spent most of Wednesday at the home, helping transfer some of the residents — mostly victims of sexual assault — to other shelters and homes. Distressed family members rushed to the shelter, two local hospitals and a morgue to find out whether their children were among the dead.
“There was so much pain, so much frustration,” Dubón said. “It wasn’t clear who died, who was alive, who had escaped.… No one was prepared for something like this.”
A mother of two of the girls in the home, Madeline Hernandez, told El Periodico that her 14-year-old daughter had told her in recent days that she wanted to leave the home, citing examples of physical abuse and poor food. One of her daughters was among those who died Wednesday; Hernandez was one of the only parents to identify her daughter from those burned at the site.
Another woman shouted out: “They are not criminals or animals. They are children, they are people, they are adolescents,” local news outlet Prensa Libre reported.
A woman who lived near the shelter told El Periodico that three of the girls had asked her for help committing suicide. “Give me pills, a knife or something. We don’t want to live here,” they told her.
“I was shocked because even though I pass by here every day,” the woman said, “I never imagined the horror that these girls could be living.”
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