SAN JOSE PINULA, Guatemala – Twenty one girls died and 37 others were injured in a fire that broke out on Wednesday in a Guatemalan children’s shelter, when female residents attempted to protest over alleged sexual and physical abuse they were suffering.
Public Ministry’s Secretary-General Mayra Veliz said that of the first 19 deaths, 17 of them were caused by severe burns, while the other two were still being investigated.
According to preliminary investigations, the fire started after the girls set mattresses alight in protest, the ombudsman for Human Rights, Abde Paredes, told reporters outside the Virgen de Asuncion home in the municipality of San Jose Pinula.
Some 100 people gathered around the area, crying and demanding that authorities identify the deceased and wounded girls, of which no further information has been released.
The fire reportedly broke out as the girls were protesting sexual and physical abuse they were facing at the home to mark International Women’s Day.
Although staff attempted to extinguish the flames, the fire spread rapidly.
As investigations got underway, children were transferred from the center. Some returned to their families and others were taken to other shelters.
One of the teenagers who left the center, Daniel, 16, told reporters that the dead girls were locked up in a school after a riot broke out on Tuesday and 40 boys tried to escape. He said they were later brought back to the center.
Through tears, Daniel said authorities “didn’t help” the girls on Wednesday and took a long time to react.
“We knew those girls. We wanted to help them but they didn’t let us,” he added.
Outside the care home, fathers, mothers and siblings of some of the children demanded answers, and complained about conditions at the center.
One father, who requested anonymity, told EFE he was concerned for the safety of his 14-year-old son who was in the center at the time of the fire.
“My son had bruises when I came to see him, and if I ask who did it, they get annoyed,” he said.
A group of women complained that their children showed signs of being “beaten” and “violated.”
The center made headlines last year when at least 47 residents escaped, which led to the dismissal of its then director.
A judge has since ordered a gradual closure of the center, prompting two judges of the Supreme Court of Justice, including the former president of the Supreme Court Silvia Patricia Valdes, to come in to assess the situation.
The facility accommodates about 748 boys and girls, although its capacity is just 400.