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Why did 41 girls die at a Guatemalan youth shelter?

Accusations of abuse and neglect have come to light after a fire at a state-funded youth shelter killed 41 girls.

On March 10, a funeral was held for Siona Hernandeza, one of the girls who died in the fire at the Virgen de Asuncion shelter, at her grandmother's home in Guatemala City [Reuters/Saul Martinez]

San Jose Pinula/Jutiapa, Guatemala - Sisters Jilma and Grindy Carias, aged 15 and 16, had begged their parents not to send them back to the state-run youth shelter.

But they did, and days later, on March 8, the girls were killed in a fire there.

Nineteen girls died in the fire at the Virgen de la Asuncion youth shelter that day, and a further 21 later succumbed to their injuries in hospital. Seven survivors were flown to two hospitals in the US, the Shriners Hospital for Children in Boston and Texas. One girl has since died, bringing the death toll to 41. The remaining six are now in a stable condition.

The sisters' grandmother, Blanca Lidia Martinez, 64, agreed to be interviewed in lieu of the girls' parents, who were too distressed to speak.

Standing on the doorstep of the family home, located in the municipality of Jutiapa, 124km from the capital Guatemala City, Martinez says that the girls' parents sent them to the shelter because they were unable to curb their unruly behaviour.

"Sometimes they were rebellious and they didn't listen to their mum. They would come home at midnight or they didn't come home at all," she says.

Fifteen members of the Carias family live in a cramped tin-walled shack. They were unable to afford to pay for the girls' funeral, so the Jutiapa municipal authorities stepped in to cover the expense.

Before returning to the shelter, the girls "said they'd rather die than go back because they were being mistreated and were not being fed", Martinez says. Their parents decided to send them back after they refused to attend appointments with a counsellor.

Martinez says the girls' bodies were so badly burned that their parents only recognised Jilma from a mole she had next to her mouth and identified Grindy by her teeth. Martinez pauses. "This is really hard. We never thought they would return home in a coffin," she says, her voice breaking.

For the Carias family and other victims' relatives, the tragedy has been compounded by allegations - previously ignored by the authorities - that staff beat and sexually assaulted girls and boys at the shelter. These allegations came to the fore in the aftermath of the fire and have highlighted the wider issue of the lack of adequate facilities for vulnerable youths in the country.

The shelter

Virgen de la Asuncion, the institution run by armed security guards where the Carias sisters died, is located in the municipality of San Jose Pinula, 25km southeast of Guatemala City.

In 2016, a court ordered that it be closed by the end of that year. But it wasn't.

Then the fire happened. After the fire, panic-stricken relatives flocked to the shelter to remove their children from the facility. But around 50 children and adolescents who have no relatives or whose relatives do not want to look after them remain there.

Built in 2010, it was meant to house children and teenagers who had previously lived in four separate institutions, separated by age and gender.

The shelter was intended to house a maximum of 350 youths, but around 700 girls and boys of different ages - living in separate wings of the building - lived in the overcrowded shelter after the Procuraduria General de la Nacion (Procurator General's Office), the state institution responsible for investigating cases of missing children or child neglect, and which legally represents vulnerable young people in family courts, deemed them wards of the state.

"Putting all those kids together was a crass mistake. Each of them had issues that needed specialised treatment. A young offender has completely different needs to that of an LGBT youth or a rebellious teenage girl," says Mireya Saadeh, director of PAMI, a local NGO that works with children who have been subjected to sex trafficking.

The girls' backgrounds varied.

Some, such as the Carias sisters, had behavioural issues. Others had been rescued from violent homes or from brothels where they were forced to engage in prostitution, while others were orphans or had special needs and were abandoned by families in extreme poverty who could not afford medication and specialised care. Some had run away from home after being bullied at school or threatened by gang members.

Fifteen-year-old Yoselin Yamilet Barahona Beltran, the last girl to be identified, was orphaned at the age of one, after her mother was hit by a car and her father didn't acknowledge her. Had she remained unidentified, she would have been buried in a mass grave, her body marked as "XX".

"Yami", as her family and friends affectionately called her, was raised by her aunt and uncle, Blanca and Emilio Marroquin, who spent 14 days searching the morgue and hospitals in the hope of finding her. Yoselin wound up in the shelter after she was raped by an unknown attacker and ran away from home, too traumatised to tell her uncle and aunt about her ordeal, say friends and relatives who asked to remain unnamed.

Girls such as Yoselin and the Carias sisters lived alongside young offenders - a minority within the shelter - who were sent there by judges because there was no space for them in the juvenile detention centres.

"What kind of country only pays attention to children and young people when a tragedy such as this happens or when young people commit a crime? Many people on social media have said that these kids were gang members when there was only a minority of young offenders; most of these kids were victims," says Carolina Escobar Sarti, director of Asociacion La Alianza, a privately run shelter for vulnerable children and teenagers.

Guatemala currently has seven state-run youth shelters and two facilities for youth offenders, where overcrowding and inadequate food, which were among the conditions reported at Virgen de la Asuncion, are the norm.

After the fire, 130 severely disabled children were moved to the Alida Espana de Arana home for children with disabilities, where 43 of them are housed together in one room. Disability Rights International, a Washington-based advocacy group whose representatives visited the new home, said in a report that these children were at risk of suffering the same abuse they had endured at the previous shelter because the new facility was not prepared to accommodate them.

A history of abuse and neglect

Since the fire at the Virgen de la Asuncion youth shelter, teenage girls who were sent there have told various Guatemalan media outlets that strangers were brought in at night and allowed to single out the girls they wished to abuse. Children and teenagers, both boys and girls, told the Guatemalan media they were sexually abused and beaten by members of staff.

"My daughter was raped in that shelter by an American man ... Children are constantly mistreated there, especially those that are mentally handicapped. Girls are classified according to their physical appearance and the prettiest ones are placed in a special unit where they are abused," the mother of a 17-year-old girl who was sent to the shelter told PlayGround, a Guatemalan news website, on March 8. The girl was removed from the shelter before the fire.

In November 2016, the Guatemalan Human Rights Ombudsman's Office visited the facility and documented 45 complaints of children's rights violations, including signs of physical abuse and the possible existence of a child sex trafficking network within the shelter, all of which were conveyed to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.

Two teachers were arrested in 2013 and are awaiting trial, accused of sexually abusing children and teenagers in the shelter. One of them is accused of forcing children as young as 12 to strip naked and perform oral sex on him. The same year, a workman hired by staff to carry out maintenance work was given a 15-year prison sentence for raping a mentally disabled 13-year-old girl.

When questioned about the progress made by the Attorney General's Office on the investigation into the alleged existence of a child prostitution network operating within the Virgen de la Asuncion shelter, spokesperson Julia Barrera told Al Jazeera on April 14 that prosecutors could not comment on the issue at present and that a full report will be issued once investigators have concluded their work. Investigators have not given an exact date for when the investigation is expected to end.

Aldrin Salguero, 15, whose older sister Keila Lopez was among the girls killed in the fire, told Al Jazeera what Lopez had told her about the place: "She said that a guard kicked her in the stomach after he tried to take advantage of her and she resisted and that they were given rotten food that was full of maggots." Lopez had turned 17 five days before the tragedy.

The Presidential Secretariat for Social Welfare, the government bureau in charge of running state-funded youth shelters, didn't have an accurate list of the young people housed in the shelter, adding to the chaos in the aftermath of the fire.

Lopez's father, Virgilio, a truck driver, was initially informed that his daughter was alive and well and that he could collect her. But when he arrived at the shelter with Keila's aunt, he was told: "No, she's dead, she's at the morgue."

Judge Veronica Galicia was so shocked by what she saw when she visited the shelter last June that she ordered it to be closed by December but the order was never obeyed, as she detailed on her Facebook page the day after the fire. Her ruling was published online by Canal Antigua news channel.

Two reports by UN rapporteurs on the conditions in the shelter as well as precautionary measures issued by the Inter-American Human Rights Commission also went unheeded, which means Guatemala could be sanctioned by an international tribunal for violating the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, Ramon Cadena, a representative of the International Commission of Jurists in Guatemala, told Al Jazeera.

"These kids were being tortured by the guards. These shelters are regarded as places where they should be punished for being rebellious rather than a place where they should receive help," Saadeh says.

How the fire happened

The fire in which the Carias sisters, Yoselin, Keila and the other girls were killed, broke out a day after 104 teenage girls rioted and escaped from the shelter.

Before they were flown to the US, three of the seven survivors said that 47 of those who escaped were caught by armed police and taken back to the shelter at gunpoint, where they were shoved into a classroom with a few foam mattresses.

Those who weren't caught remain unaccounted for.

The next day, after they were not allowed to leave the classroom to use the toilets, they used the mattresses to build a makeshift shack where they relieved themselves. Then, one of the girls set fire to the mattresses to catch the police agents' attention and to force them to open the door.

"We started shouting at the police to open the door because we were getting burnt. They said they didn't care and that if we had managed to escape we could put up with the fire. They told us to 'go to hell'," one of the survivors told Nomada, a digital investigative journalism publication.

According to these accounts, the police ignored their screams and pleas to open the door, which remained locked until the fire brigade arrived 25 minutes later and found burned bodies and victims of smoke inhalation as well as the severely burned survivors.

Shaken by the survivors' accounts of the abuse and neglect that led to the deaths of 41 teenage girls, Guatemalans took to the streets to demand justice for the victims, and for several days, the national flag flew at half-mast in Guatemala City's main square.

On March 13, the director of the Virgen de la Asuncion youth shelter as well as the director and deputy director of the social welfare government bureau, were arrested on homicide and child abuse charges. On April 7, they were granted house arrest on the condition of bail after a preliminary hearing.

The day after the three officials were arrested, President Morales appointed a new director and deputy director of the social welfare government bureau. Both have a track record of working with widely recognised child welfare NGOs such as Save the Children and World Vision. To date, however, the Virgen de la Asuncion youth shelter remains without a new director, as no one has accepted the position. The shelter is due to be closed as soon as the remaining 50 children are housed elsewhere.

Prosecutors say they will appeal against the judge's house arrest ruling. Child welfare activists and ordinary citizens who have rallied behind the victims' families held a protest in Guatemala City's central square the day after it. During the Easter weekend, many Catholics made traditional sand and colourfully dyed sawdust carpets, known as alfombras, commemorating the tragedy and demanding justice for the victims. "Ni una menos" or "Not one less", an expression commonly used by Latin American women's rights activists, and "41 ninas" (41 girls) were some of the messages stenciled into the alfombras.

On March 15, at the University of San Carlos de Guatemala, protesters display a mock coffin covered with skulls and signs which in Spanish read: "State femicide. Justice. It wasn't a fire, it was the state" and "We demand justice" [AP/Luis Soto]

Investing in children

Child welfare experts insist the institutions in charge of young people who become wards of the state need a drastic overhaul in order to prevent such tragedies from happening again. Some suggest scrapping the Secretariat and replacing it with a Ministry of Family Affairs with a greater budget.

Saadeh, however, is not convinced and says the change would be purely cosmetic.

"It's not just a question of building these kids a nice new place," she says. "The idea isn't to set up new institutions for nothing to change."

Real change, critics say, will begin when the country makes child welfare a top development priority.

According to World Bank figures, Guatemala, the fourth most unequal country in Latin America, only invests $0.34 a day in child welfare policies despite the fact that children and teenagers comprise 30 percent of the country's population.

"As long as we don't invest resources in what should be most sacred to us - our young people - Guatemala will be condemned to underdevelopment," Saadeh says.

______________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________(c) Al Jazeera News 2017

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