SAN JOSI PINULA: At least 19 people died in a fire at a state shelter for children in Guatemala on Wednesday, firefighters said, after reports minors there rebelled overnight over alleged sexual abuse and poor treatment by staff.
The cause of the blaze was not immediately known, nor was the number of children among those killed.
Commanders have “informed us that they have already counted 19 people deceased” in the Virgin of the Assumption Safe Home located in San Jose Pinula, a village just to the east of the capital, the fire services spokesman, Mario Cruz, told reporters.
Another 25 people were injured, suffering first-, second- and third-degree burns. They were taken to state hospitals in Guatemala City.
The country office of the UN children’s fund UNICEF said on its Twitter feed it “condemns the tragedy” and emphasized: “These children and adolescents must be protected.”
The center, supervised by state social welfare authorities, hosts minors under age 18 who are victims of family maltreatment or found living on the street. They are kept there under court orders.
It has been the target of multiple complaints alleging abuse, and several children have run away.
– Calls to close the shelter –
Initial news reports in Guatemala suggested that some of the children and teenagers in the shelter had protested against poor food and treatment by staff, causing a disturbance in the hours before the blaze.
Guatemala’s prosecutor for upholding children’s rights, Hilda Morales, told reporters she was requesting that the shelter be closed due to welfare authorities’ inability to manage it.
“We are going to ask for the immediate closure of the center, and attribute administrative and criminal responsibility against those in charge of the center for not fulfilling their duty,” she said.
She stressed that those sent to the center should receive “better protection” than in their families where they were abused.