Guatemala shelter fire started in locked classroom

Death toll rises to 37 after blaze in room holding 52 teenagers detained after riot

Candlelit vigil outside the National Palace in remembrance of the girls who died in a fire at the Virgen de la Asuncion safe home in Guatemala City. Photograph: Moises Castillo/AP Photo

Candlelit vigil outside the National Palace in remembrance of the girls who died in a fire at the Virgen de la Asuncion safe home in Guatemala City. Photograph: Moises Castillo/AP Photo


A fire that killed at least 37 and maimed others at an overcrowded Guatemalan shelter for abused teenagers broke out in a tiny room they were locked in after a riot at the centre, authorities and witnesses said.

The blaze in the 16sq m classroom where 52 teenagers were being detained left survivors with such severe injuries that burn specialists were flown in from the United States and medics said they needed hundreds of blood donors.

Hospital officials on Friday said two more girls had died overnight and that more than a dozen remained in critical condition.

The government has sacked the director of the Virgen de la Asuncion home, temporarily closed the centre, declared three days of mourning and vowed to reform a childcare system that experts say is critically underfunded.

Lit mattress

“The staff left the girls in an extremely reduced space, a four-metre by four-metre room, for 52 teenage girls,” said Claudia Lopez, Guatemala’s deputy ombudsman for human rights on Thursday. “It was a terribly thought out decision.”

Police and witnesses say the fire appeared to have been started by one of the girls, who set light to a mattress in the room, possibly as a protest after hours inside.

“If it really was the girls who started the fire – why did they have matches in their hand, why were they not searched if they were going to be locked into this tiny space?” Lopez said.

The Virgen de la Asuncion home houses youths up to 18 years old on the pine-wooded outskirts of the municipality of San Jose Pinula, some 25km (15 miles) southwest of the capital Guatemala City.

Its residents are an unusual mix of victims of violence and young offenders, with children with disabilities in another wing.

Escape attempt

Years of problems at the home boiled over at lunchtime on Tuesday when a group of teenagers complaining about the conditions inside feigned a fight in the lunch hall as a distraction, before attacking staff and trying to escape, one eyewitness said.

After hours of rioting, police captured most of those who had fled and they were separated from the hundreds of other residents in the complex, according to an account written by the government’s human rights department.

During five hours of negotiations that evening, the leaders of the rebellion alleged abuse by the staff including rotten food and the use of bleach on their skin and pepper spray as punishment for bad behaviour, according to the document.

At about 1am, the 52 girls were locked into a classroom and given thin mattresses to sleep on, local police chief Wilson Maldonado told a congressional commission. Boys involved in the trouble were kept in a separate area, an employee at the home said.

At about 9am, police stationed outside the room noticed smoke seeping out, Mr Maldonado said. However, one witness said the fire had started 30 minutes earlier and that police initially ignored the cries for help, thinking the girls were protesting.

“I heard shouting and loud noises all night,” said a teenage girl who witnessed the fighting in the lunch hall and said she had spent much of Tuesday cowering under a bed in her dorm after some of her peers tried to make her join the riot.

“The fire was at about 8.30am, the boys came running down to say that a girl had died,” she said. “The police grabbed the boys and a carer began hitting them and telling them off for having left the room they were left in.”

Abuse accusations

The Virgen de la Asuncion centre has a history of abuse accusations documented by Guatemalan media. Over the last three years more than 250 of its residents have fled, newspaper reports said.

Human rights reports and interviews with people inside the centre paint a complex picture. Some residents felt the centre provided them with shelter and education their families couldn’t, and blamed a few “rebels” for the tensions.

Speaking on condition of anonymity, an employee who has worked there for six years attributed many of the problems to low funding, poor staffing levels and judges who sent a steady flow of youth offenders to the home, rather than to detention centres.

“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 that she had faced death threats and verbal abuse from her wards.

Guatemala has Latin America’s worst rates of child malnutrition. Street gangs such as the Mara Salvatrucha prey on minors. The Central American nation’s public institutions are underfunded, racked by corruption and overcrowding.

The situation has contributed to the exodus of at least 67,000 Guatemalan children to the United States since 2013.

“What happened in the secure home yesterday is just the tip of the iceberg of an entire system of not protecting children and teens in Guatemala,” said Enrique Maldonaldo, a specialist in child studies at the Instituto Centroamericano de Estudios Fiscales.

“Guatemala has not been capable of guaranteeing a minimum level of social protection,” he said.

– Reuters