Guatemala charges officials over shelter fire that killed 41 girls

Guatemala’s Public Ministry said prosecutors charged three former officials from the Secretariat of Social Welfare agency over the deaths of 41 girls in the fire at the government-run Virgen de la Asunción shelter.

Dolls on coals meant to represent girls that died in a recent shelter fire are seen during a demonstration at the National Palace in Guatemala City, Guatemala, during a protest on March 11. On Tuesday, three former officials of Guatemala's Secretariat of Social Welfare agency were charged over the incident. Photo by Esteban Biba/EPA
Dolls on coals meant to represent girls that died in a recent shelter fire are seen during a demonstration at the National Palace in Guatemala City, Guatemala, during a protest on March 11. On Tuesday, three former officials of Guatemala’s Secretariat of Social Welfare agency were charged over the incident. Photo by Esteban Biba/EPA

In a statement Tuesday, the Public Ministry said the Public Prosecutor’s Office charged Guatemala’s former Secretary of Social Welfare Carlos Antonio Rodas Mejía, former Under Secretary of Social Welfare Anahí Keller Zavala and former director of the Virgen de la Asunción shelter Hogar Torres Torres Ramírez with culpable homicide, abuse of authority, breach of duties and abuse against minors. Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales fired the three officials after the March 8 fire.

Guatemalan prosecutors described the conditions in which the girls lived in the shelter as “terrible.” The girls were locked in rooms and were not allowed to leave or go to the bathroom. Authorities said the worst act by the Social Welfare officials, though, was delegating the responsibility of the teens to the National Civil Police after one girl attempted to escape. The police locked the girls in the classroom where the fire occurred and did not render aid when they cried for help.

Human rights abuse allegations dating back to as early as 2013 plagued the shelter. The fire caused outrage in Guatemala, which led to protests demanding justice for victims.

Prosecutors said the night before the fire dozens of girls tried to escape the facility in San José Pinula. Those who escaped were captured and brought back to the shelter. Officials locked 56 of the girls in a small room, where the fire occurred after a girl set a mattress alight in protest of their treatment at the shelter.

Prosecutors said firefighters were not quickly called to the scene because the incident was first reported as a riot. Public prosecutor Edwin Marroquín said the fire lasted for 25 minutes. Seventeen girls died at the scene and 24 later died in hospitals.

The girls “were exposed after about 9 minutes to a temperature above 300 degrees Celsius [572 degrees Fahrenheit] and with less than 21 percent oxygen required, so the odds of survival were minimal,” Marroquín said during a press conference.

By Andrew V. Pestano