Guatemala in shock after fire horror at children's home

Guatemala in shock after fire horror at children's home
By Catherine Hardy with REUTERS
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The country has declared three days of national mourning after at least 22 young girls died in a fire at a home for vulnerable teenagers and children. Police are investigating claims of arson.


At least 22 young girls have died in a fire at a home for vulnerable teenagers and children in Guatemala.

The country has declared three days of national mourning.

A crowd of relatives, some wailing in grief, gathered outside the government-run Virgen de Asuncion home for the under-18s in San Jose Pinula, 25 km southwest of the capital, Guatemala City.

What happened?

Police say some residents set mattresses ablaze after trying to escape from the overcrowded facility.

The head of Guatemala’s national police says the blaze was started by a group of young people who had been isolated by the authorities after a riot and an escape attempt at the centre on Tuesday.

Nery Ramos says officials are investigating whether those who started the blaze are the ones who tried to escape.

“What happened is extremely serious, and even more so for the fact that it could have been avoided,” Anabella Morfin, Guatemala’s solicitor general, told reporters.

“This should never have happened.”

Was anyone injured?

Local hospitals say around 40 people are being treated for burns.

What happened on Tuesday night?

Riot police went in to quell unrest prompted by conditions in the centre. Dozens of residents escaped but 54 were recaptured and kept isolated from the others.

What is the centre like?

The Virgen de Asuncion home has long suffered from overcrowding. Guatemalan media report that more than 500 people are crammed into the centre, which is meant to house 400.

Distraught relatives said abuse was common at the facility, which is run by the Ministry for Social Welfare.

Presidential spokesman Heinz Heimann condemned what he described as the shelter’s “open living arrangements.”

What the grieving relatives are saying

50-year-old Alicia Lopez waited outside the centre for hours to find out what had happened to her autistic 12-year-old son.

“I still don’t have information, I want justice for him,” she said.

Andrea Palomo told reporters in tears that she had brought her 15-year-old son to the home to discipline him. He told her he was mistreated and complained that gang members inside were tattooing other children.

Guatemala’s ombudsman for human rights decides whether children are placed in the home. Some parents have praised it.

59-year-old Cristina Puac says her adopted teenage daughter Gladys was placed there for being rebellious and aggressive.


“When I came to see her, everything seemed find, she never complained about anything.”

What is life like in Guatemala for young people?

It can be grim. Plagued by Latin America’s worst rates of child malnutrition and street gangs like the Mara Salvatrucha that often prey on minors, the country can be a challenging place to grow up.

Conditions in the Central American nation’s public institutions are often dismal with widespread overcrowding.

What they are saying

“We will fully support the institutions responsible for investigating, and we will contribute to finding the truth,” President Jimmy Morales said in a statement on national television.

“This is a dreadful incident and the Attorney General is obliged to report it to the Public Ministry to find out what caused it and find out who was responsible,” – Guatemala’s Solicitor General, Anabella Morfin.

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