19 teenage girls die in Guatemala shelter blaze

19 teenage girls die in Guatemala shelter blaze
Family members react as they wait for news of their loved ones after a fire broke at the Virgen de Asuncion home in San Jose Pinula, on the outskirts of Guatemala City, Guatemala March 8, 2017.
PHOTO: Reuters

At least 19 teenage girls died Wednesday in a fire in an overcrowded Guatemala shelter for children under government care, following an overnight rebellion against staff accused of sexual abuse and other maltreatment.

All those killed were aged between 14 and 17.

"For the moment we have confirmation of 19 girls killed," the secretary general of the public ministry, Mayra Veliz, told reporters.

Seventeen of the bodies were charred. The condition of the other two victims was unknown. "We haven't yet processed all of the scene," Veliz said.

Another 25 people were injured, suffering first-, second- and third-degree burns, according to the firefighting service. They were taken to hospitals in Guatemala City.

An ambulance exits the Virgen de Asuncion home, where a fire broke out, in San Jose Pinula on the outskirts of Guatemala City, Guatemala March 8, 2017.Photo: Reuters

The fire broke out in the adolescent female wing of the state-run Virgin of the Assumption Safe Home.

The facility, built in 2006, is located in San Jose Pinula, a village 10 kilometers (six miles) east of the capital Guatemala City.

The blaze was believed to have started during disturbances in the packed centre, which holds nearly double the 400 people it was designed to house.

"They were serving food to the teenagers when some of them started a fire in a mattress and that's how the fire was set," said Abner Paredes, a human rights worker.

"It was a ticking time bomb. This was to be expected," one of the centre's former employees, Angel Cardenas, said outside.

He said he had lodged several warnings about conditions inside.

A victim of a fire at the children's shelter Virgen de la Asuncion, is rushed into a hospital in San Jose Pinula, about 30km east of Guatemala City, on March 8, 2017.Photo: AFP

At the entrance of the facility, whose imposing, barbed wire-topped concrete wall showed no sign of the drama inside, crying relatives crowded the entrance in search of news of the children kept there. Police blocked access to them and to journalists.

A few survivors were seen hugging kin on the pine tree-lined road. But many other family members were left with no news.

"They don't want to give any information at all," stormed Rosa Aguirre, a 22-year-old street vendor who had rushed from the capital to see if her two sisters, aged 13 and 15, and her 17-year-old brother were among the casualties.

She said many frustrated people had gone to the hospitals to see if their relatives were there.

Aguirre said she, too, had lodged complaints about how the centre's charges were treated, but received no attention.

She said brawls broke out often, and her brother was sometimes put in a dark isolation cell nicknamed the "chicken coop." She said she had tried in vain to be given custody of her siblings after their mother's death four months ago.

Guatemalan media said the shelters' occupants had revolted overnight and into Wednesday against alleged sexual abuse by staff, and over poor food and conditions.

Family members react as they wait for news of their loved ones after a fire broke at the Virgen de Asuncion home in San Jose Pinula, on the outskirts of Guatemala City, Guatemala March 8, 2017.Photo: Reuters

The United Nations children's fund UNICEF called the fire and the deaths a "tragedy." It added in a Twitter post that "these children and adolescents must be protected." The centre, supervised by state authorities, hosts minors under age 18 who are victims of domestic violence or found living on the street.

They are sent there by court order and are under the responsibility of the social welfare ministry.

The shelter has been the target of multiple complaints alleging abuse. Dozens of children have run away in the past year, reportedly to escape ill treatment inside.

Guatemala's prosecutor for upholding children's rights, Hilda Morales, told reporters she was requesting the shelter be closed due to welfare authorities' inability to manage it.

"We are going to ask for the immediate closure of the centre, and attribute administrative and criminal responsibility against those in charge of the centre for not fulfilling their duty," she said.

She noted that last year the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights had found in favour of several adolescents who had alleged maltreatment and sexual abuse in the shelter.

She stressed that those sent to the centre should receive "better protection" than in their families where they were abused.

Candles are lit for victims after a fire broke out at the Virgen de Asuncion home in San Jose Pinula on the outskirts of Guatemala City, March 8, 2017.Photo: Reuters

Another prosecutor tasked with protecting children in the country, Harold Flores, told the radio station Emisoras Unidas that since last year complaints had surged against the shelter over minors fleeing to escape alleged sexual abuse there.

He said an investigation was underway to find the reasons and those responsible for Wednesday's tragedy.

In Guatemala's Congress, lawmakers held a minute of silence for the victims of the fire before demanding those in charge of the centre be dismissed.

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