At least 20 teenage girls die in Guatemala shelter blaze

The inmates were raising rebellion against sexual abuse in the government-run shelter Photograph:( WION )

AFP San Jos? Pinula, Guatemala Department, Guatemala Mar 09, 2017, 02.17 AM (IST)

At least 20 teenage girls died in a fire in an overcrowded Guatemala shelter for children under government care, following an overnight rebellion against staff accused of sexual abuse and other maltreatment. All those killed were aged between 14 and 17.

"For the moment we have confirmation of 19 girls killed," the secretary general of the public ministry, Mayra Veliz, told reporters yesterday. The number of casualties has since increased by at least one.

Seventeen of the bodies were charred. The condition of the other two victims was unknown. "We haven't yet processed all of the scene," Veliz said.

Another 25 people were injured, suffering first-, second- and third-degree burns, according to the firefighting service. They were taken to hospitals in Guatemala City.

The fire broke out in the adolescent female wing of the state-run Virgin of the Assumption Safe Home. The facility, built in 2006, is located in San Jose Pinula, a village 10 kilometres east of the capital Guatemala City.

The blaze was believed to have started during disturbances in the packed centre, which holds nearly double the 400 people it was designed to house.

"They were serving food to the teenagers when some of them started a fire in a mattress and that's how the fire was set," said Abner Paredes, a prosecutor defending children's rights. "It was a ticking time bomb. This was to be expected," one of the center's former employees, Angel Cardenas, said outside.

He said he had lodged several warnings about conditions inside. At the entrance of the facility, whose imposing, barbed wire-topped concrete wall showed no sign of the drama inside, crying relatives crowded the entrance in search of news of the children kept there. Police blocked access to them and to journalists.

A few survivors were seen hugging kin on the pine tree-lined road. But many other family members were left with no news.

"They don't want to give any information at all," stormed Rosa Aguirre, a 22-year-old street vendor who had rushed from the capital to see if her two sisters, aged 13 and 15, and her 17-year-old brother were among the casualties.

She said many frustrated people had gone to the hospitals to see if their relatives were there.

Aguirre said she, too, had lodged complaints about how the center's charges were treated, but received no attention.

She said brawls broke out often, and her brother was sometimes put in a dark isolation cell nicknamed the "chicken coop." She said she had tried in vain to be given custody of her siblings after their mother's death four months ago.