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Shirley Palencia cries over the coffin of her 17-year-old sister, Kimberly Mishel Palencia Ortiz, who died in a fire at a state-run shelter, at the General Cementery in Guatemala City on March 17, 2017. (JOHAN ORDONEZ/AFP/Getty Images)

Death & horror

Trials begin in Guatemala for officials who stood by as 41 abused girls burned to death

By WITW Staff on February 15, 2019

Nearly two years on from a horrific fire that killed 41 girls at a government run home in Guatemala, trials are getting underway to hold accountable the many officials implicated in causing their deaths.

The tragedy at the state-run group home, known as the Virgin de Asuncion Hogar Seguro, began long before the fire. A New York Times review of case files of victims and survivors of the incident has uncovered a litany of physical, psychological, and sexual abuse allegations dating back for years.

Several girls had told relatives that they were being forced to have sex with older strangers, according to interviews with three different families. Accounts of horrifying conditions at the home — among them rotten food, disease-ridden bedsheets, and orderlies with a penchant for enthusiastic corporal punishment — had been exposed by local journalists since 2013. Twenty-five reports of abuse — including accusations that employees physically and sexually abused their charges — had been reported between 2016 and 2017. And at least six children died at the home between 2012 and 2015, in large part due to preventable health-related complications. Making matters even worse was the reality the vast majority of the girls at the home were placed there for their own protection after suffering sexual abuse, violence, and abandonment — often at the hands of their own families.

Just ahead of the deadly fire, an escape attempt was made by nearly 100 of the children at the home. Officials had rounded up the escapees, placing the boys in a large auditorium and cramming 56 girls in a small classroom designed to fit a handful of students. The girls were locked up in the classroom for hours without being allowed to leave even to use the bathroom. One of the girls lit a match, apparently believing it would force police to finally release them. Instead, 15 female police officers stood by arguing about whether they should open the door as nearly all of the girls burned and suffocated to death.

Among those facing trial are the magistrate, who never bothered to show up to tell officials how to proceed with the children in the wake of the escape — despite being summoned on numerous occasions. (Around midnight, the officials decided to lock up the children until the judge arrived.) The officer-in-charge at the scene is also likely to face charges after five witnesses said they overheard her mocking the urgency of the situation with subordinates.

“They escaped once today,” she is alleged to have said. “Let them escape again if they’re so tough.”

Read the full story at The New York Times.

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