41 crosses, 56 lives: The struggle for truth and justice two years on from the Hogar Seguro Virgen de la Asunción fire
Guatemala City—At the center of Guatemala City's Central Square, under a billowing blue and white national flag, stands a little ring of iron crosses. The improvised altar of 41 crosses, one for each of the girls who lost their lives in a fire at the Hogar Virgen de la Asunción orphanage (“Virgin of the Assumption Safe Home,” or HSVA) 25 km to the south of Guatemala City in the municipality of San José Pinula, on March 8, 2017, International Women's Day.
The crosses are held in place by cheap cement bought by one of the mothers of the girls, who holds an almost daily vigil at the altar. Sometimes, there are flowers; other times, there are candles. Always, there are people who pass to say a prayer, pay their respects, or shed a tear.
The fire was reported across the national and international press as a tragic accident: some teenage girls, residents of the HSVS, rebelled; 56 of them were held overnight in a locked classroom and one of the “ringleaders” set fire to a mattress; and before anyone knew what was happening, they were trapped in the inferno that would consume their young lives.
The truth, however, is far more sinister.
A history of unaddressed violence and abuse in the ‘City of Children’
The HSVA, once known as the “City of Children,” was opened in 2010, with capacity for up to 400 children and young people. Usually placed there under court order, the HSVA became home to children and young people from impoverished families, those experiencing problems with addiction, children who were abandoned, victims of physical or sexual abuse, and those who were differently abled. Between 2010 and 2018, the home grew to an estimated 600 residents.
As early as 2012, the UN special rapporteur on the sale and exploitation of children raised concerns about the overcrowding in the HSVA and its inability “to provide effective and specialized care and attention in an environment where there are such diverse needs.”
Over the next several years, and particularly in the months leading up to the fire, civil society organizations and UN bodies had documented and filed multiple reports relating to massive overcrowding, unsanitary conditions, inedible food, inadequate clothing, and little or none of the promised educational programs at the home. Residents had even made formal complaints to the Public Ministry relating to physical, psychological, and sexual abuse, torture and detention, sexual exploitation, and trafficking occurring at the home. Among the victims of the fire, six of the girls had filed formal complaints to the Public Ministry for physical abuse.
Between September and November 2016, there were 55 missing persons reports filed for children who disappeared from the home, many of whom still remain unaccounted for. In response, the Human Rights Ombudsman's office petitioned the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) in October 2016 for precautionary measures to protect the residents of the HSVA and, in December 2016, filed a complaint against the HSVA regarding disappearances from the home and the possible existence of sexual exploitation and trafficking taking place there.
On the December 12, 2016, in response to multiple complaints and reports, the Court for Children and Adolescents in Guatemala City condemned the Guatemalan government for its “lack of compliance, respect, and application of the human rights of the children and adolescents who have been or remain in the HSVA.” It ordered the restructuring of the HSVA, the recruitment of qualified staff, and the immediate closure and destruction of spaces used for torture and mistreatment within the home. Nevertheless, the Secretariat for Social Welfare (SBS)—the institution responsible for running the HSVA—refused to comply with the court order and was in the process of appealing the decision at the time of the fire. Precautionary measures were only granted by the IACHR on March 12, 2017, five days after the fire, and the Constitutional Court ordered the permanent closure of the HSVA in June 2017, three months after the fire and five years after concerns of inadequate care and human rights violations first surfaced.
The crisis reaches a breaking point
The facts—as far as they have been established by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in Guatemala (OACNUDH) after intensive documentation—state that on March 7, 2017, a group of girls between ages 12 and 17 began to protest the inhumane conditions and continuous human rights violations at the HSVA, climbing onto the roof of their dorm and calling to the boys in another section to join them.
After this latest protest from residents, which had now become a regular occurrence due to deteriorating conditions and continued dismissal of residents’ complaints, the management—for no apparent reason—opened the main gate. Up to 100 young people fled into the surrounding hills. They were rounded up with force by the National Civil Police (PNC) and herded back to the home, where they were left sitting outside along the walls of the HSVA for hours while state authorities, including staff from the HCVA and officials from both the Attorney General's Children's Office and the SBS, discussed possible solutions to the situation.
After deciding that a judge should review the cases, authorities separated the boys from the girls and locked them away for the night: at 2:30 a.m., the 43 boys were locked into an auditorium and the 56 girls were taken to a disused classroom, the door secured from the outside with a padlock. Some 40 PNC officers remained outside standing guard. The Children's Attorney from the Attorney General's Office said in a public statement on March 7 that the children and adolescents who had “rioted” that day would be held in a “special place and under custody for the night.”
The 56 girls were packed two or three to dirty foam mattresses in a classroom with capacity for 26 students. There was only one door, with no water or restrooms, and the windows were barred. At least one of the girls was pregnant, and others were cut or injured from the previous day's escape. The girls closed off a corner of the room with mattresses to create a designated space to relieve themselves
On the morning of March 8, the girls were given breakfast and forced to eat in the same overcrowded room where they had slept and relieved themselves.
The officers guarding the door, as well as staff at the home, refused to heed the girls’ repeated requests to use the restrooms, shower, and change their clothes.
According to OACNUDH's findings, witnesses reported that one of the girls locked inside the classroom had set fire to a mattress as a means of pressuring the authorities to let them out. The girls immediately screamed for help. The police officers and staff from the home had allegedly ignored the smoke coming out of the broken windows and the pleas for help from the girls locked inside. The girls never once stopped screaming for help. They waited nine minutes before opening the door. The fire brigade was called, but according to the fire chief who arrived at the scene they were made to wait 40 minutes before the HSVA staff and PNC officers allowed them to enter.
Within those nine minutes, 19 girls died instantly, their bodies calcified in the flames, and 22 more would die over the next week in the San Juan de Díos or Roosevelt national hospitals, either from their burns, asphyxia, poison from the toxic gases, or sepsis. 15 would be left with life-altering injuries, including extensive burns across their bodies and, in some cases, multiple amputations.
Stigma skews public reaction to the tragedy
Across local media and social networks, the girls were portrayed as troublemakers who had brought the fire upon themselves. They were branded as criminals, delinquents, or mareras (gang members), and badly behaved.
The girls at the HSVA were there for varied reasons, including running away from home; rebelliousness; domestic violence; sexualized violence; abandonment; “protection”; and for “reasons unknown.” Most were there under an order from a judge, but others had been sent by their families who thought that with the promise of food, clothing, and schooling, they would be better off in state care than in their own homes. Many families were actively trying to have their girls released back to them but were faced with an intransigent judicial system in which court dates were regularly postponed or even canceled.
Mujeres Transformando el Mundo (Women Transforming the World, or MTM), is a feminist legal organization that litigates cases of sexualized violence related to Guatemala's past conflict and is one of the appellant organizations in the HSVA case. Director Paula Barrios said, “Girls occupy the lowest wrung in terms of social concern in Guatemala, and these girls [were] even lower. To most people in this country, they are nothing more than human waste. As soon as they enter one of these institutions, they are abandoned by society. That’s why there has been so little public indignation.”
A stalled legal process
The Public Ministry opened a criminal case to investigate the deaths of the girls the very same day as the fire; yet, two years on, there have still been no convictions.
In February this year, after almost two years of hearings, 12 people have been detained on charges of abuse of minors, breach of duties, abuse of authority, accidental injuries, and manslaughter. Among those charged are the Secretary and Sub-Secretary for Social Welfare at the time of the fire, the director of the HSVA, and the PNC officer in charge on the day of the fire. Eight of them have been ordered to face public trial for these crimes, with hearings expected to begin in May 2019.
OACNUDH has raised concerns that the charges relate to minor crimes and do not reflect the seriousness of what had occurred, nor of the devastating consequences for the victims and survivors, their families, and the other children and adolescents who were residing at the HSVA at the time of the fire.
The judicial process has been marked by obstructions and delays, with hearings postponed on a regular basis and the initial presiding judge excusing himself from the case amid accusations of bias in favor the defendants and discrimination toward the victims and their families, including one instance in which he allegedly badgered a survivor during her testimony and prohibited the families from expressing any emotion.
“How can we talk of access to justice after so many hearings have been suspended?” said Barrios. “Nobody is prioritizing these hearings.”
The long path to truth, justice, and dignity
Some reparations have been obtained, both symbolic and material: as of August 2018 the Guatemalan Congress passed a law providing a monthly subsistence payment of US$654 for three years for the 15 survivors and their families. From the fourth year onward, they will receive the equivalent of the minimum wage which is currently valued at US$11.68 per day, or US$387.88 per month, while the minimum cost of living is estimated to be US$466.30. Guatemala City's main square has been renamed “The Girls’ Square,” and March 8 was also officially declared “National Day for Victims of the Tragedy at the HSVA,” a day of mourning and to demand justice.
Meanwhile, the families continue their vigils at the court house and by the altar of crosses in Guatemala's central square, praying that the truth behind what happened that day will finally be revealed, and justice will be done to those responsible.
In a statement read to the public on November 24, 2018, the families of the 56 victims and survivors said, “We demand justice and truth, because every human being has the right to know the truth (...) we want to know what happened on March 7 and 8  but we also want to know what happened before and after. We want to know what is behind the fire...
... why didn't they open the door?
What were they hiding?
Why did they burn them?”
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