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.