PBI-Guatemala accompanies Human Rights Law Firm at hearing on “safe home” fire that killed 41 and injured 15 girls and adolescents

Published by Brent Patterson on

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On February 7, PBI-Guatemala posted:

“Today, #PBI accompanies the Human Rights Law Firm to the hearing of the #HogarSeguroCase. However, for the fourth time in 2023 and the eleventh time since 2019, the hearing has been suspended since the defense of one of the defendants rejected Judge Ingrid Cifuentes of the Seventh Court. In the previous hearing, the judge ruled that the lawyers of the defendant Luis Pérez Borja abandoned the defense for not showing up in court, which caused the suspension of the hearing. With this recusal, the trial cannot start until an appeals court decides, so the clarification of what happened during the state home fire continues to be delayed.”

The New York Times has previously reported:

As fire swept through the classroom [on March 8, 2017, at the Virgen de la Asunción Hogar Seguro/safe home] the pleas from the 56 girls locked inside began to fade.

Most were unconscious or worse by then, as an eerie silence replaced their panic-stricken shouts.

The police officers guarding the door — who had refused to unlock it despite the screams — waited nine minutes before stepping inside. They got water to cool down the scorching knob.

Inside, dozens of girls placed in the care of the Guatemalan state lay sprawled on the blackened floor. Forty-one of them died.

A review of more than two dozen case files of victims and survivors — along with interviews of family members, group home employees and public officials — reveals a pattern of physical, psychological and sexual abuse allegations at the facility stretching back for years.

Six children had previously died in the government-run home from 2012 through 2015, mostly from preventable health-related complications, officials said. The authorities are also looking into 25 episodes of abuse reported in the year before the fire.

Beyond that, several girls had told their relatives well before the tragedy that they were forced to have sex with older strangers, according to interviews with members of three different families.

The disaster began with an escape attempt. Nearly 100 of the children in the state-run group home, known as Hogar Seguro Virgen de la Asunción, had decided to flee en masse.

But officials rounded them up and locked them inside the facility — the boys in an ample auditorium, the girls in a small classroom meant for only a few people.

After hours of incarceration — in which the girls were not allowed to use the bathroom — someone lit a match, thinking a fire might force the police to let them out.

Instead, most of the girls died as more than a dozen police officers argued over whether their supervisor, standing 10 feet away, should unlock the door with the keys hanging from her belt.

The girls, who had broken no laws and posed no threat to society, were victims even before the fire. As survivors of sexual abuse, violence or abandonment — often at the hands of their own families — the government had assigned them to the institution for their own safety. In theory, the world outside posed the greatest threat to them.

Between September and November of 2016 alone, more than 90 children ran away, according to prosecutors who have charged more than a dozen officials in connection with the fire.

Local journalists had recounted harrowing reports of abuse inside the home as far back as 2013 — rotten food, filthy bedsheets that caused skin diseases, violent orderlies.

Then, in February 2017, another batch of children began planning their own escape.

It began on Valentine’s Day, when the children were allowed to mingle. Scores of boys and girls agreed on a day to flee, but word of the plot began to leak. Around lunchtime on March 7, two girls faked a fight in the cafeteria, drawing the orderlies into the fracas.

The others ran.

Nearly 100 in all, they scaled the walls of the outer building and jumped into a ravine, a few injuring themselves in the fall. They scattered across a creek, taking off in different directions.

By 2:30 p.m., the authorities had caught them and brought them back to the home, where they were kept outside in the cold for hours as officials debated what to do.

Around midnight, the officials decided to lock up the children until the judge arrived. The girls, 56 of them, were crammed into a room of less than 500 square feet and given 23 polystyrene mattresses to share. One girl had fractured her pelvis in the escape attempt. Another was pregnant, though neither she nor the administrators knew it at the time.

Fifteen female police officers were put in charge, given the keys to the locked classroom and instructed to let no one out, officials said.

At 6 a.m., still cold and wet, the girls began to complain. They needed to use the bathroom. Without recourse, they stood up two mattresses to create a makeshift latrine.

Hours passed. Then one girl, fed up, lit a match, hoping to force the police into opening the door.

The officer-in-charge later told prosecutors that she risked her life to save the children. But phone records obtained by investigators show that she was busy dialing numbers from her phone, and witnesses say she dismissed the urgency to her subordinates.

Fifteen girls managed to survive the fire, but many now live with deep physical and emotional scars layered on top of the ones they already had.

One girl has burns over 95 percent of her body. The fire stripped her face of eyelids, lips and her nose. She hardly goes outside anymore to avoid the stares and teasing from other children.

The full article can be read at A Locked Door, a Fire and 41 Girls Killed as Police Stood By (New York Times; February 14, 2019).

Further reading: The Story Behind the Fire That Killed Forty Teen-Age Girls in a Guatemalan Children’s Home (The New Yorker; March 19, 2017).

Photo: Some of the girls and adolescents who died either from smoke inhalation or later from the severity of their burns.

Those charged

In November 2017, The Guardian reported: “Initially, three people – the former minister of social welfare, his deputy and the director of the shelter – were charged with negligent homicide, abuse of power and mistreatment of minors. In June, three government officials and two police officers were also charged.”

In March 2021, EFE reported: “At least eight people including police officers and authorities have been charged with the deaths of minors.”

And CNN has reported that five are accused of breach of duties, wrongful death, mistreatment of minors and wrongful injuries. One of those is Lucinda Marroquín, the former deputy inspector of the National Civil Police, is accused of not opening the locked room for 9 minutes after the fire started. That CNN article adds that Santos Torres, the former director of Hogar Seguro, also faces five criminal charges, including abuse and homicide.

Photos (Getty Images/BBC): Among those who have been arrested: Anahy Keller, the former undersecretary of Protection and Fostering of Children and Adolescents; former Social Welfare Secretary Carlos Rodas; and the former director of the shelter, Santos Torres.

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