Pattern of abuse found at trial against Guatemala officials who stood by as 41 girls burned to death in locked home

Officials arrive at the entrance to the youth shelter in San Jose Pinula, near Guatemala City, where 41 girls died in a March 2017 fire.
Officials arrive at the entrance to the youth shelter in San Jose Pinula, near Guatemala City, where 41 girls died in a March 2017 fire.PHOTO: NYTIMES

GUATEMALA CITY, GUATEMALA (NYTIMES) - As fire swept through the classroom, the pleas from the 56 girls locked inside began to fade.

Most were unconscious or worse by then, as an eerie silence replaced their panic-stricken shouts.

The police officers guarding the door - who had refused to unlock it despite the screams - waited nine minutes before stepping inside. They got water to cool down the scorching knob.

Inside, dozens of girls placed in the care of the Guatemalan state lay sprawled on the blackened floor. Forty-one of them died that day on March 8, 2017.

It was one of the deadliest tragedies in Guatemala since the end of its civil war decades ago, and it happened inside a group home for at-risk young people who had been put there by the government, supposedly for their own protection.

Now, nearly two years later, the trials against public officials accused of failing to prevent the deaths have all begun.

But a review of more than two dozen case files of victims and survivors - along with interviews of family members, group home employees and public officials - reveals a pattern of physical, psychological and sexual abuse allegations at the facility stretching back for years.

Six children had previously died in the government-run home from 2012 through 2015, mostly from preventable health-related complications, officials said. The authorities are also looking into 25 episodes of abuse reported in the year before the fire.

Beyond that, several girls had told their relatives well before the tragedy that they were forced to have sex with older strangers, according to interviews with members of three different families.

"When I went to see her a month before the fire, she begged me to get her out of there; she said they were hurting her," said Ms Estelita de Jesus Chutan Urrias, a sister of one of the girls who died in the blaze.

"She told me they were taking a few of the girls out at midnight, bathing them and dressing them and forcing them to sleep with strangers."

The deaths are a reflection of the cruel passage to adulthood for many young girls in Guatemala, a journey often marked by poverty, violence and desperation. The nation has one of the highest child pregnancy rates, and the homicide rate for women is among the worst in the world.

"To be a girl in Guatemala is a risk, it's been this way for generations," said Mr Marwin Bautista, an undersecretary in the Ministry of Social Welfare who oversees the group homes.

"This was a failure in the institution. And to be honest, it didn't just happen. It was the terrible result of years of neglect and problems."

The fire disaster began with an escape attempt. Nearly 100 of the children in the state-run group home, known as the Virgin de Asuncion Hogar Seguro, had decided to flee en masse.


But officials rounded them up and locked them inside the facility - the boys in an ample auditorium, the girls in a small classroom meant for only a few people.

After hours of incarceration - in which the girls were not allowed to use the bathroom - someone lit a match, thinking a fire might force the police to let them out.

Instead, most of the girls died as more than a dozen police officers argued over whether their supervisor, standing 3m away, should unlock the door with the keys hanging from her belt.

In that time, fire tore through the cheap polystyrene mattresses that the teenage girls had been given to sleep on, searing their flesh and muting their cries with noxious smoke.

The girls, who had broken no laws and posed no threat to society, were victims even before the fire. As survivors of sexual abuse, violence or abandonment - often at the hands of their own families - the government had assigned them to the institution for their own safety. In theory, the world outside posed the greatest threat to them.

"These are girls who had been abused, sometimes raped, by members of their own family," said Ms Norma Cruz, the director of Survivors, a group representing the families of nearly two dozen victims. "These girls were placed there for their protection."

The Escape 

The Virgin de Asuncion Hogar Seguro was created for children with nowhere else to go. Opened in 2010, it housed boys and girls from infancy to 17 in a gated facility on the edges of the capital, Guatemala City.

Escape had long been a theme of the home. Between September and November of 2016 alone, more than 90 children ran away, according to prosecutors who have charged more than a dozen officials in connection with the fire.

Local journalists had recounted harrowing reports of abuse inside the home as far back as 2013 - rotten food, filthy bedsheets that caused skin diseases, and violent orderlies.

Then, in February of 2017, another batch of children began planning their own escape.

It began on Valentine's Day, when the children were allowed to mingle. Scores of boys and girls agreed on a day to flee, but word of the plot began to leak. Around lunchtime on March 7, two girls faked a fight in the cafeteria, drawing the orderlies into the fracas.

The others ran.

Numbering nearly 100 in all, they scaled the walls of the outer building and jumped into a ravine, a few injuring themselves in the fall. They scattered across a creek, taking off in different directions.

By 2.30pm, the authorities had caught them and brought them back to the home, where they were kept outside in the cold for hours as officials debated what to do.

Under protocol, the authorities had to wait for a magistrate to arrive and decide how to proceed, officials said. But the magistrate never showed, despite receiving numerous calls demanding her presence. Her trial began this week.

Around midnight, the officials decided to lock up the children until the judge arrived. The girls, 56 of them, were crammed into a room of less than 500 square feet and given 23 polystyrene mattresses to share. One girl had fractured her pelvis in the escape attempt. Another was pregnant.

Fifteen female police officers were put in charge, given the keys to the locked classroom and instructed to let no one out, officials said.

At 6am, still cold and wet, the girls began to complain. They needed to use the bathroom. Without recourse, they stood up two mattresses to create a makeshift latrine.

Hours passed. Then one girl, fed up, lit a match, hoping to force the police into opening the door.

The officer-in-charge later told prosecutors that she risked her life to save the children. But phone records obtained by investigators show that she was busy dialing numbers from her phone, and witnesses say she dismissed the urgency to her subordinates.

"They escaped once today," she said, according to testimony from five witnesses. "Let them escape again if they're so tough."

Worlds of Pain

The boys and girls at the facility were long accustomed to the cruelty of the streets, and for many, it followed them into the group home.

The allegations include employees physically and sexually abusing children, gross overcrowding and filthy conditions. The human rights division of the attorney general's office is investigating 25 reports of abuse between 2016 and 2017, according to Ms Claudia Maselli, the head of the office.

But for prosecutors, those investigations have taken a back seat to the fire, the deadly culmination of many of these problems.

Almost all of the girls had faced a deep, pervasive poverty that made even the basics of life a struggle. Many were runaways, fleeing their upbringings for a variety of reasons, including physical and sexual abuse by relatives.

Even as a child, Indira was preyed upon - sexually abused by her father, who is now in prison, and badly neglected by her mother, according to lawyers representing the families.

When she was 16, after several attempts to run away from home, a judge determined she would be safer in a group home.

Instead, she died there, from smoke inhalation, stretched out beside girls who shared stories like her own.

The fire also claimed two sisters, aged 12 and 14. Like the others, they were born in destitution, sharing a ramshackle single-room home with their parents and two more siblings.

They were constant companions, one quiet, the other extroverted and playful. But school was an uphill battle for both and home was hardly any better, so the two began to run away. Violence was a standard part of their lives, particularly when their families found them, the lawyers said.

A long series of court interventions followed and a judge eventually placed them in the group home - where they died together.

Fifteen girls managed to survive the fire, but many now live with deep physical and emotional scars layered on top of the ones they already have.

One girl has burns over 95 per cent of her body. The fire stripped her face of eyelids, lips and nose. She hardly goes outside anymore, to avoid the stares and teasing from other children.

For some, there is hope, particularly in contrast to what they have endured. One 14-year-old was pregnant when the fire ripped through the classroom, though she and the administrators didn't know it at the time.

She survived the blaze, and her child was born a few months later. Prosecutors overseeing the case have become an unofficial family to the child. A few even attended the birth, donning scrubs for the delivery last October.

"We booked her in a private clinic to handle the complications and got her emergency surgery," said Mr Edgar Gomez, the prosecutor handling the case. "We all adopted this baby."

Today, the young mother, now 16, is back in state custody, along with her newborn daughter.