A candlelight vigil was held late Wednesday (March 8) in Guatemala City after a fire tore through a home for abused teenagers and children in Guatemala, killing a reported 30-some residents. The girls are said to have set mattresses ablaze following an overnight attempt to escape from the overcrowded center, police said.
A crowd of relatives, some wailing with grief, gathered outside the government-run Virgin de Asuncion home for youths aged up to 18, in San Jose Pinula, 25 km (15 miles) southwest of the capital, Guatemala City.
Hospitals reported about 40 people being treated for burns.
The blaze started when a group of young people who had been isolated by authorities after a riot and an escape attempt at the center on Tuesday night set fire to mattresses, said Nery Ramos, head of Guatemala’s national police.
Authorities were investigating whether those who started the blaze were the ones who had tried to escape, Ramos added.
Attendees at the vigil were outraged over what they termed the “negligence” of the state.
“The situation is very dramatic. The pain being felt by the families, the people of Guatemala, is striking, Because this was a massacre. I repeat, this was a massacre. This was a sin committed with these kids, and the Guatemalan government must respond, including the president of the republic, who must respond. Because this is an area that he must be aware of with regard to protecting children, and he didn’t do that,” said Norma Cruz, a children’s advocate in Guatemala.
“We didn’t know we were going to wake up with this terrifying news that 20 young girls were burned, tortured, killed by the negligence of the government, from the abandonment of the government. The government denied them protection in a protective house, what was a shelter.
“We’ve decided to reorient the program here, so these candles were not just put here for the loved ones of the girls, but for the these 20 young girls themselves who were killed and who did not deserve to die and who were victims of state violence,” said Elizabeth Rojas, a member of the Women on Strike organization.
Burnt bodies partially covered in blankets were strewn across the floor of a blackened room in the home, pictures posted to Twitter by firefighters showed.
“We will fully support the institutions responsible for investigating, and we will contribute to finding the truth,” President Jimmy Morales said in a brief statement on national television Wednesday night.
Morales earlier declared three days of national mourning.
Mayra Veliz, secretary general of the attorney general’s office, pledged a transparent investigation into the cause of the blaze. She said a group of disabled girls had been bused to another shelter as detectives scoured the site.
Plagued by Latin America’s worst rates of child malnutrition and street gangs like the Mara Salvatrucha that often prey on minors, Guatemala can be a traumatic place to grow up.
Conditions in the Central American nation’s public institutions are often dismal with widespread overcrowding.
The vigil took place outside of the National Palace in Guatemala City.