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Trials Start Against Guatemalan Officials Accused of Responsibility for Death of 40 Children

Zahra Banday, BA English

TRIGGER WARNING: This article contains graphic descriptions of sexual abuse and violence.

In February of 2017 around one hundred children tried to escape Hogar Seguro Virgen de la Asunción, a state-run orphanage in Guatemala, but officials soon found them, rounded them up and took them back to the shelter. They proceeded to lock up 56 of the girls who escaped, into a small room fit for 26, for 10 hours. One of the girls lit a match to alert the officials to let them out, but instead a fire spread. The New York Times reported that the police officers waited “nine minutes before stepping inside”, despite the girls “panic-stricken shouts”. By that time, it was too late as many had died as a result of the fire. Aljazeera reports that “nineteen girls died in the fire at the Virgen de la Asuncion youth shelter that day, and a further 21 later succumbed to their injuries in hospital”. It is only now, two years after this horrifying event, that five figures accused being responsible for these deaths are being put to trial.

it was too late as many had died as a result of the fire

The shelter has had a tragic history of abuse and scandal, and unfortunately, the authorities have neglected to properly investigate the allegations made by the children for years. These are primarily reports of physical and sexual abuse, highlighting the dire need for more resources for vulnerable youth in Guatemala. Aljazeera reports that “teenage girls who were sent there have told various Guatemalan media outlets that strangers were brought in at night and allowed to single out the girls they wished to abuse”, as well as being “sexually abused and beaten by members of staff”. The mother of a seventeen-year-old girl staying at the shelter told Guatemalan news outlet PlayGround that, “Girls are classified according to their physical appearance and the prettiest ones are placed in a special unit where they are abused”.

Two teachers at the facility were arrested in 2013, one of them accused of forcing young children to perform sexual acts on him. Another shocking case is of bricklayer José Roberto Arias Pérez who was given a 15-year prison sentence in 2014 for raping a mentally disabled 13-year old girl whilst working on the property. Norma Cruz, the director of group Survivors says of the girls living there that: “These are girls who had been abused, sometimes raped, by members of their own family. These girls were placed there for their protection.” The children had been placed into the care of the government to escape the brutality they faced around them, yet they did not find any true refuge from this at the shelter. The institution was reportedly “intended to house a maximum of 350 youths” but had around “700 girls and boys of different ages”, thus children were forced together despite their individual needs. A rebellious teenage girl would be placed in the same place as a young offender and there was no extra care for disabled children leaving all of them desperately vulnerable. The announcement of a trial for the staff involved in deaths of the girls is a step in the right direction to finally get justice. However, the judge’s decision to only prosecute five individuals when one can assume there were many more offenders shows how this abuse goes largely unpunished in a system where the cries of abused children fall on deaf ears.

Photo Credits: Creative Commons

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