40 Girls Killed in Fire at Guatemalan Youth Home Where Rape & Abuse Were Rampant

At least 40 girls died in a fire on March 8 at the Hogar Seguro Virgen de la Asunción, a youth center in Guatemala with a history of abuse, rape and corruption.

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The girls were locked in a room following a riot, where the teens complained about sexual violence and abuse at the center and threw objects at authorities.

Stuck in the room for six hours, with no one allowed to leave to even use the restroom, four ringleaders continued their protest while locked away. They had managed to secure matches to smoke cigarettes during the riot the previous day, and they used them to enflame a mattress by a window in hopes of getting the attention of officials and being released.

The mattress fell onto other mattresses and the fire spread quickly. The girls yelled, "Help me! Help me," but aid never came.

When firefighters did arrive at the scene, 21 girls had already died. Another 19 would pass away later at local hospitals.

“That is something you cannot forget,” said firefighter Danial Perpuac, who saw flames coming out of the mouth of one girl who was burning up inside. “I know I will have the smell of grilled meat and hair in my nose and throat for life.”

But Hogar Seguro Virgen de la Asunción has been an inferno in many ways before the fatal fire.

The shelter, home to about 700 young people, has a maximum capacity of 500. Most of the teens and girls living there are runaways, survivors of abuse, young migrants and children of families too poor to care for them, or pay the $50 lawyers' fees to get them out.

Sitting atop a hill and separated from the rest of the town by high walls and barbed wire, the youth home has been the center for unchecked abuse, inhumane living conditions and rape for years – and everybody knows.

Teacher Edgar Rolando Diéguez Ispache, who has been behind bars since 2013, is on trial for rape. Another worker, José Roberto Arias Pérez, is serving an eight-year sentence for raping a mentally disabled girl.

Over the last two years, Guatemala's attorney general and the National Adoption System have published reports criticizing the center and calling for its closure.

Still, the doors to the crowded facility remained open and the abuse, which prompted the fire and deaths, continued.

“It is an injustice,” said Valeria Yojero at the burial of her 17-year-old granddaughter Kimberly Palencia Ortiz, who died in the fire. Palencia Ortiz's father is in prison, her mother disappeared and her grandmother did not have the money to care for her, forcing the teen into the government-run facility. 

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“Nobody should die for being poor,” Yojero said.