Rape, abuse, death of girls at Guatemala home burned by fire

Rape, abuse, death of girls at Guatemala home burned by fire

When firefighters entered the home for troubled youth, they discovered more than two dozen girls on the floor of a locked room, most of them dead.

A moan rose from one of the bodies, piled on top of each other. When firefighter Danial Perpuac turned the girl over, flames came out of her mouth — she was burning up inside.

"That is something you cannot forget," Perpuac said helplessly. "I know I will have the smell of grilled meat and hair in my nose and throat for life."

The fire on March 8 that killed 40 girls at the Virgen de la Asunción Safe Home started when ringleaders took a match to a foam mattress to protest the abuse they had suffered there. Their hell at the government-run shelter began long before the inferno, as documented in several warnings and at least two orders for closure.


In this March 9, 2017 photo, charred-stained dolls placed on a bed of charcoal are part of an artists' installation placed at the front gate of the presidential house in remembrance of the victims of a fire at the Virgen de la Asunción Safe Home, in Guatemala City. The girls' hell at the government-run home began long before the deadly fire, as documented in several warnings from four different agencies. At least two orders for closure were ignored. (AP Photo/Luis Soto)


The Virgen de la Asunción home is on a hill 14 miles east of Guatemala City, protected by high walls and barbed wire. About 700 children — nobody knew exactly how many — lived in a home with a maximum capacity for 500.

The majority had committed no crime. They were sent there by the courts for various reasons — they had run away, they were abused, they were migrants. Most came from families so poor they could not afford the $50 in lawyers' fees to get their children out.


Relatives wait outside the Virgen de la Asunción children's shelter, in San Jose Pinula, Guatemala, on Wednesday, March 8, 2017. (AP Photo/Luis Soto)

In this March 8, 2017 photo, National Police guard the entrance to the Virgen de la Asuncion Safe Home, in San Jose Pinula, Guatemala. In November, a state human rights prosecutor filed a complaint with the Inter American Human Rights Commission charging rampant abuses at the shelter. The accusations included charges as serious as "forced recruitment for human trafficking for the purpose of prostitution." (AP Photo/Luis Soto)


The abuse at Virgen de la Asunción was no secret. Teacher Edgar Rolando Diéguez Ispache has been in prison since 2013 and is on trial for alleged rape. Another employee, mason José Roberto Arias Pérez, has been in prison since 2014 for raping a mentally disabled girl.

Several reports criticizing the shelter were put out by the country's attorney general and the National Adoption System in 2015 and 2016. One recommended the gradual closure of the facility, and another its immediate closure.

Yet the abuse continued.


Former Social Welfare Secretary Carlos Rodas is escorted by police at a police station after his detention in connection with the fire at a children's shelter that killed 40 girls in Guatemala City, Monday, March 13, 2017.  (AP Photo/Moises Castillo)

Former Social Welfare Deputy Secretary Anahi Keller is escorted by police at a police station after her detention in connection with the fire at a children's shelter that killed 40 girls in Guatemala City, Monday, March 13, 2017. (AP Photo/Moises Castillo)

Former Assumption Safe Home Director Santos Torres is escorted by police at a police station after his detention in connection with the fire at a children's shelter that killed 40 girls in Guatemala City, Monday, March 13, 2017.  (AP Photo/Moises Castillo)


The story of one girl who escaped the shelter on Oct. 30, after six weeks inside, was told in a case file seen by The Associated Press. The girl, 16, is not named because she is an alleged victim of rape.

She fled from her own house in August to escape extortion demands from a gang. On Aug. 22, police located the girl, and a youth court sent her to Virgen de la Asunción. Officials separated mother and daughter as they cried.

"Mama, get me out of here," the girl begged, according to her mother.

By the time of a hearing on Sept. 13, the girl had been beaten, forced to get a tattoo with the name of a female staffer, and repeatedly raped, her mother said.

The first time, the female staff called her in for a physical exam and sedated her. She woke up and her whole body hurt, and she realized what they had done, according to the case file.


In this March 8, 2017 photo, a doctor holds photos of victims of the Virgen de la Asuncion Safe Home fire, as relatives try to identify them, outside the Roosevelt Hospital in Guatemala City. Forty girls died in the tragedy after they lit several mattress during a protest. (AP Photo/Moises Castillo)

In this March 8, 2017 photo, a pink blanket covers a 16-year-old survivor of a fire that broke out at the Virgen de la Asuncion Safe Home, as she sits inside the emergency room at the Roosevelt Hospital in Guatemala City. The fire on March 8th that killed 40 girls at the shelter started when girls took a match to a foam mattress to protest the abuse they had suffered there. (AP Photo/Moises Castillo)


Several days later, they took her to the same place. This time, she was awake and tied to a gurney. The young man who raped her had his face covered.

The third time, it was several men, she said. They raped her and beat her.

A little more than two months after she was sent to the shelter, the daughter escaped along with three others.

On Nov. 11, the state attorney requested that the center be closed. He asked that areas known as "the cage" and "the chicken coop" be closed within 48 hours. Both facilities looked like punishment cells, with metal doors and no windows.

Also in November, a state human rights prosecutor filed a complaint with the Inter American Human Rights Commission, with charges as serious as "forced recruitment for human trafficking for the purpose of prostitution."

There were complaints about sexual abuse by male residents against female residents, including some under 13. One girl was killed in 2013, hanged with a scarf by two other girls.


In this March 17, 2017 photo, Shirley Palencia weeps during the burial service for 17-year-old sister Kimberly Palencia Ortiz, who died in the Virgen de la Asunción Safe Home fire, at the cemetery in Guatemala City. Authorities said the fire that swept through parts of the institution when mattresses were set ablaze during a protest by girls protesting conditions at the overcrowded youth shelter. (AP Photo/Moises Castillo)


On Dec. 12, a court condemned the state of Guatemala for violations committed against the rights of minors guarded in the home. It also gave 48 hours to clarify the legal situation of a number of minors inside the home.

Nothing happened.

The secretary of social welfare, Carlos Rodas, who was responsible for the home, appealed the judicial decision. Rodas, who has since been arrested, has denied negligence and refused to resign.

"The problem is that judges mix children who have committed crimes with children abandoned by their families," he said.

On March 7, about 60 girls escaped from the shelter. They rebelled because shelter staff had tried to beat them, said a 14-year-old survivor, whose family did not want her name used out of fear for her safety. Riot police caught them and returned them to the shelter by force.


In this March 15, 2017 photo, police stand guard in the woods near the Virgen de la Asuncion Safe Home, in San Jose Pinula, Guatemala. The children's shelter, located on a hill 14 miles southeast of Guatemala City, protected by high walls and barbed wire, is surrounded by an idyllic pine forest covered with mist every morning. The forest and ravines have offered hiding places for more than 100 children who have escaped what they consider a jail. (AP Photo/Moises Castillo)

In this March 15, 2017 photo, stickers, one with an image of the Virgin Mary with a partial text that reads in Spanish "Home protected by" and another sign that reads "Stop, identify yourself," are stuck on the entrance to Virgen de la Asuncion Safe Home, in San Jose Pinula, Guatemala. On March 7, about 60 girls escaped from the shelter by jumping from the roof of the facility to the wall, and from there into the trees. (AP Photo/Moises Castillo)


The escapees eventually were locked in a 500-square-foot classroom as punishment. It is as yet unclear who locked them in and who held the key.

By 7:30 the next morning, they had been held for about six hours. They were not let out even to use the bathroom, the girl told the AP.

Four girls who were ringleaders at the home had managed to get matches to smoke cigarettes during their brief escape. In an attempt to protest the lockup and force somebody to open the doors, they set fire to a mattress propped against a window. The burning mattress fell onto other mattresses, and the flames quickly spread.

The girls shouted, "Help me! Help me!" the 14-year-old said.

Nobody did.

"I saw how they burned, how they screamed, how they died," she said.

She fainted. When she came to, somebody had finally opened the door. She ran out.

The girl suffered burns on both arms, a shoulder and part of her face. By 9 a.m., 19 of the girls were dead, burned and asphyxiated. Twenty-one more between the ages of 13 and 17 would die at local hospitals over the next few days.

Kimberly Palencia Ortiz was one of the dead. The 17-year-old had been a ward of the state for nearly a year. Her father was in prison, her mother had disappeared, and her grandmother did not have the means to take care of her.

"It is an injustice," Valeria Yojero said tearfully at her granddaughter's burial. "Nobody should die for being poor."


A man prays on the wall outside the Virgen de la Asunción children's shelter, in San Jose Pinula, Guatemala, Wednesday, March 8, 2017. At least 19 people have died after a fire at the shelter, which was created to house children who were victims of abuse, homelessness or who had completed sentences at youth detention centers and had nowhere else to go, the spokesman for Guatemala's volunteer fire departments said. (AP Photo/Luis Soto)

 

In this March 8, 2017 photo, a doctor shows photos of the victims in an attempt to identify them after a fire at the Virgen de la Asuncion Safe Home, outside the Roosevelt Hospital in Guatemala City. When firefighters entered the home for troubled youths, they discovered more than two dozen girls on the floor of a locked room, most of them dead. (AP Photo/Moises Castillo)

 

A woman holds a flowers bouquet during the burial of 14-year-old Madelyn Patricia Hernandez Hernandez, a girl who died in a fire at the Virgin of the Assumption Safe Home, at the Guatemala City's cemetary, Friday, March 10, 2017. Families began burying some of the 36 girls killed in a fire at an overcrowded government-run youth shelter in Guatemala as authorities worked to determine exactly what happened. (AP Photo/Moises Castillo)

 

Women cry during a burial of 14-year-old Madelyn Patricia Hernandez Hernandez, a girl who died in a fire at the Virgin of the Assumption Safe Home, at the Guatemala City's cemetery, Friday, March 10, 2017. Families began burying some of the 36 girls killed in a fire at an overcrowded government-run youth shelter in Guatemala as authorities worked to determine exactly what happened. (AP Photo/Moises Castillo)

 

Neighbors attend the wake of 14-year-old Madelyn Patricia Hernandez Hernandez, a girl who died in a fire at the Virgin of the Assumption Safe Home, at "Cuatro de Febrero" neighborhood in Guatemala City, Thursday, March 9, 2017. Guatemala's president called for a restructuring of his country's youth shelter system following a fire that killed multiple girls at an overcrowded government facility for children, while grieving families began receiving the bodies of their loved ones. (AP Photo/Moises Castillo)

 

Marta Lidia Garcia, center, cries during the wake of her 17-year-old daughter Siona Hernandez, who died in a youth shelter fire, in Ciudad Peronia, Guatemala, Friday, March 10, 2017. Guatemala's president called for a restructuring of his country's youth shelter system following the fire that killed at least 36 girls at an overcrowded government facility for children.  Relatives and officials said Wednesday's blaze began when youths set fire to mattresses to protest abuses at the Virgin of the Assumption Safe House. (AP Photo/Moises Castillo)

 

Relatives carry the coffin containing the remains of 17-year-old Siona Hernandez Garcia, a girl who died in a fire at the Virgin of the Assumption Safe Home, at the Guatemala City's cemetery, Friday, March 10, 2017. Families began burying some of the 36 girls killed in a fire at an overcrowded government-run youth shelter in Guatemala as authorities worked to determine exactly what happened. (AP Photo/Luis Soto)

 

In this March 12, 2017 photo, people attend the burial of 14-year-old Ana Roselia Perez Junay, who died in a fire at the Virgen de la Asunción Safe Home, at the cemetery in Zaragoza, Guatemala. The fire on March 8th that killed 40 girls at the shelter started when girls took a match to a foam mattress to protest the abuse they had suffered there. (AP Photo/Moises Castillo)

 

Relatives sit next to the coffin of 14-year-old Ana Roselia Perez Junay, who died in a fire at a children's shelter, inside her mother's home in Zaragoza, Guatemala, Sunday, March 12, 2017. The death toll in the March 8 fire rose to 40 on Sunday with the announcement that another girl has died of burns. (AP Photo/Moises Castillo)

 

Women attend the wake of 14-year-old Ana Roselia Perez Junay, who died in a fire at a children's shelter, inside her mother's home in Zaragoza, Guatemala, Sunday, March 12, 2017. The death toll in the March 8 fire rose to 40 on Sunday with the announcement that another girl has died of burns. (AP Photo/Moises Castillo)

 

 In this March 17, 2017 photo, Shirley Palencia mourns over the coffin containing the remains of her 17-year-old sister Kimberly Palencia Ortiz, who died in the Virgen de la Asuncion Safe Home fire, at the cemetery in Guatemala City. Palencia Ortiz had been a ward of the state for nearly a year. Her father was in prison, her mother had disappeared, and her grandmother did not have the means to take care of her. (AP Photo/Moises Castillo)

 

In this March 12, 2017 photo, people carry the coffin of 14-year-old Ana Roselia Perez Junay, who died in the fire at Virgen de la Asunción Safe Home, to the cemetery in Zaragoza, Guatemala. The majority of the children at the shelter had committed no crime, but were youths sent there by the courts for various reasons. Most came from families so poor they could not afford the $50 lawyers' fees to get their children out. (AP Photo/Moises Castillo)

 

In this March 8, 2017 photo, a woman who learned her daughter died in the fire is held by her sister outside the Virgen de la Asunción Safe Home, in San Jose Pinula, Guatemala. The fire that killed 40 girls at the shelter started when girls took a match to a foam mattress to protest the abuse they had suffered there. (AP Photo/Luis Soto)

 

Women hold candles outside Guatemala's embassy during a demonstration demanding justice for the 40 Guatemalan girls killed last week in the fire at a state-run children's shelter, in Quito, Ecuador, Thursday, March 16, 2017. (AP Photo/Dolores Ochoa)

 

A man holds up a Guatemalan national flag stained with fake blood during a protest demanding justice for the girls who perished in the youth shelter fire, in front of the National Palace in Guatemala City, Saturday, March 11, 2017. A key Guatemalan official was ordered not to leave the country Saturday as the death toll rose to 39 girls in a fire that began when mattresses were set ablaze during a protest by residents of the youth shelter. (AP Photo/Luis Soto)

 

A woman lights candles amidst flowers laid out in front of the Palace of Fine Arts as several dozen people protest the deaths of 40 girls in a fire at a Guatemalan children's shelter, in Mexico City, Monday, March 13, 2017. Guatemalan officials arrested three former child welfare officials Monday on suspicion of homicide, mistreatment of minors and failure to fulfill duty. (AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell)

 


Text from the AP news story, Rape, abuse, death of girls at Guatemala home burned by fire, by Alberto Arce and Sonia Perez D.

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