Guatemala fire death toll rises to 40

13 Mar

Gloria Perez (c) mourns her 14-year-old sister, Ana Roselia, who died in a fire at a Guatemalan children's homeImage copyright
EPA

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Gloria Perez (c) mourns her 14-year-old sister, Ana Roselia, who died in the fire

The number of teenage girls killed by a fire at a Guatemalan children’s home has risen to 40.

The girls, aged 14 to 17, were caught in the blaze at the government-run Virgen de Asuncion shelter last week.

Human rights prosecutor Hilda Morales told the BBC that psychologists were being brought from Costa Rica to help the victims’ families and survivors.

Before the tragedy, Ms Morales had recommended the shelter, near Guatemala City, be shut down.

“The tragedy could have been avoided if the authorities had complied with our recommendations from years ago,” said Ms Morales of the home in San Jose Pinula.

She said she was determined to bring those responsible to justice and a criminal complaint had been filed.

The tragedy has put a spotlight on alleged failings in Guatemala’s child protection services.

The head of the agency has been ordered not to leave the country while investigations continue.

Some Guatemalans are also calling for President Jimmy Morales to resign over the alleged state failings. Thousands protested against him in Guatemala City on Saturday.

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AFP

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Protests in Guatemala City on Saturday, calling for justice and the president’s resignation

There had also been allegations of abuse at the overcrowded centre.

Ms Morales, who is not related to the president, said her office had presented concerns about human rights violations in the home in 2013, and then recommended “concrete steps” to protect the residents.

This was reiterated in November last year when a court order was filed, calling for precautionary measures to be taken.

The Secretariat of Social Welfare (SBS), which ran the school, rejected the accusations and appealed.

The fire is believed to have started after a mattress caught fire, following a riot.

Guatemalan media report that the riot erupted as a result of alleged sexual abuse by staff and frustration with the poor conditions.

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AFP

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Protesters in Guatemala City drew attention to the alleged abuse in the home

Nineteen girls died at the scene, and dozens were taken to hospital with second- and third-degree burns, according to hospital officials.

Four of the surviving burn victims were flown to the US Shriners Hospital for Children in Texas on Saturday for further treatment.

As the home did not have adequate records of the residents, identifying and accounting for the dead and the injured has been hugely problematic, according to local media.

Those who fled were also hard to trace.

Reports say the capacity of the home is 400, but that many more children were living there at the time.

The shelter takes in children up to the age of 18 who have suffered abuse or have been abandoned.

But local media say the shelter was also functioning as a juvenile detention centre, to which judges were sending adolescents involved in criminal cases.