2017 Guatemala orphanage fire
Virgen de la Asunción Safe Home after the fire
|Date||8 March 2017|
|Time||9:00 am Central Standard Time|
|Venue||Virgen de la Asunción Safe Home|
|Location||San José Pinula, Guatemala|
The 2017 Guatemala orphanage fire occurred on 8 March 2017, at the Virgen de la Asunción Safe Home in San José Pinula, Guatemala. 41 girls, aged between 14 and 17 years old, were killed when a fire broke out at the orphanage. The girls had been locked in a schoolroom following protests, riots and an escape attempt which occurred the day before. In the aftermath of the fire, three government officials—including the country's Secretary of Social Welfare—were arrested and charged with crimes such as wrongful death and negligence.
Virgen de la Asunción Safe Home is a state-run children's home located in San Jose Pinula, about 25 kilometres (16 mi) away from the capital Guatemala City. The institution was built in 2010 and accommodates abandoned or orphaned children, as well as children with disabilities, drug addictions, or who are pregnant. Some have been institutionalized by the state after being abused by family members, forced into prostitution, or being homeless. Although the home does not house criminals, it does take in minors with legal histories who have completed their sentences, but have no relatives to take care of them.
Reports of abuse
Virgen de la Asunción has a long history of abuse allegations. In 2014, a contractor hired by the home was convicted of raping a mentally disabled 17-year-old girl. Two teachers have been arrested on charges of sexual assault.
Guatemala's Human Rights Ombudsman's Office (PDH for its initials in Spanish) received 45 reports of abuse between 2012 and 2016. On 2 November, 2016, the PDH requested the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights to issue precautionary measures, citing evidence of mistreatment by staff and of a human trafficking network which recruited children from the home.
On 7 March, rioting broke out at the safe home, followed by a mass escape. The day began with protests against abuse, rape, and overcrowding. According to the Social Welfare Secretariat, the riot started at 2:00 pm when a group of adolescents climbed on to the roof and threatened guards and staff with metal objects. During the confusion, about 85 residents escaped and fled into the surrounding woods. Most were captured by police and returned to the home.
Upon returning to the home, the adolescents were not immediately allowed to enter the building. President Morales had directed the staff to keep the escapees separate because they had broken the law and represented a risk to the other residents. At 1:00 am, the escapees were let back into the building. The boys were returned to their dormitories, while the girls were sent to a schoolroom.
In the morning, the girls were not allowed to leave to use the bathroom. At around 9:00 am, a fire broke out in the schoolroom. The cause of the fire is undetermined, but witnesses claim the fire was set by adolescents in an act of protest. Two survivors recounted hearing girls saying they would "sacrifice so that everyone knows what we lived hered." Police who were guarding the room did not allow the girls to escape.
19 girls died on the scene. Victims were transferred to hospitals in Guatemala City and the Shriners Hospital for Children in Texas. In total, 41 girls were killed by the fire. All were between the ages of 14 and 17.
Human rights advocates condemned various officials—including president Morales, the Attorney General, and the Secretary of Social Welfare—for failing to address the complaints about abuse of all kinds at the orphanage. A spokesman for the president instead placed blame on the court system.
Several members of the Congress of Guatemala called for the dismissal of Carlos Rodas, the Secretary of Social Welfare. Meanwhile, the Public Prosecutor began a criminal investigation of the events, collecting evidence including video from surveillance cameras at the home.
On 11 March, hundreds of people protested in Guatemala City against the perceived negligence, corruption and ineptitude of the Guatemalan government. Protestors walked through the streets of the city reading the names and ages of the girls who died. Chants included "it was the state," and "it wasn't an accident, it was an execution."
On the same day as the protests, Rodas resigned as Secretary of Social Welfare. President Morales announced he would "remove the line of command" at the safe home, and the Deputy Secretary of Social Welfare and the director of the home were both dismissed shortly after the fire.
On 13 March, Guatemalan authorities announced the arrests of former secretary Carlos Rodas, former deputy secretary Anahí Keller, and former director of the safe home Santos Torres. Criminal charges against them included wrongful death, mistreatment of minors, and negligence. In June, two police officers, were also charged for crimes related to the fire.
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