By Francisco Goldman March 19, 2017
The number of teen-age girls who died when a fire broke out on the morning of March 8th in a state-run home for minors on the outskirts of Guatemala City now stands at forty. Those who perished were among fifty-two girls who’d been confined to a schoolroom at Hogar Seguro Virgen de la Asunción after a night in which they’d rioted and run away, before being captured by police and brought back to the home. Nineteen died at the scene of the schoolroom blaze, and the others in the two Guatemala City hospitals that received the injured. Almost immediately, Guatemalan and international news reports began to speculate that the girls might have been locked in the schoolroom, perhaps as punishment.
Many blamed the school’s teachers and “monitors.” A woman who lived near the children’s home told a reporter that she’d witnessed some of the riot on March 7th, and had seen girls “throwing rocks at their teachers and at the police and tauntingly shouting, ‘Rape us here, in front of everybody! Come on and rape us again here, if that’s what you want!’ “ The witness continued, “That was a girls’ rebellion. Anyone who lives around here knows that place is a hell.” In 2013, several staff members at the school were found guilty of sexual abuse. Last year, a family-court judge found that the home’s practices—which included punishments that amounted to torture—were in violation of children’s human rights, and ordered that improvements be made.
In the wake of the fire, the revelation that the Secretariat for Social Welfare had failed to respond to these orders led to widespread criticism of the department, and of Guatemala’s President, Jimmy Morales. Even before the deaths, Morales, a former television comedian, was regarded by many as the hapless head of a uniquely corrupt government. (In 2015, his predecessor, Otto Pérez Molina, went to prison on corruption charges.) Morales was particularly criticized for having named two close friends, including a former producer of his comedy show, to leadership posts in the Secretariat for Social Welfare while also slashing its funding. In a press conference the evening of the fire, the Secretary of Social Welfare, Carlos Rodas, refused to resign or to accept any blame. In his speech, he claimed that the girls had sharp weapons hidden in their hair. He said that President Morales had ordered the police to return the girls to the home after their escape attempt, and that all attempts at dialogue with the girls had been exhausted. Morales hadn’t come to the press conference, Rodas said, because “he was attending to urgent matters of state.”
I arrived in Guatemala City on Friday, March 10th, on business unrelated to the fire. My close friend, the Guatemalan journalist Claudia Méndez Arriaza, met me at the airport, and, with a few hours to spare, compelled by journalistic curiosity, we drove an hour to Hogar Seguro Virgen de la Asunción.
The home is one of several institutions in Guatemala for youths who have been orphaned, abandoned, or turned over by parents who lack the means to support them. As recent newspaper reports revealed, some of the residents’ parents had felt that their daughters were in need of discipline; others wanted to protect them from the notorious mara street gangs that terrorize poor urban neighborhoods. The court had taken some of the girls into custody because they’d been abused by family members, or because they were living on the streets. The youths at Virgen de la Asunción were not deemed to be criminals—adolescents in Guatemala judged to be “in conflict with the law” are sent to juvenile-detention centers—although minors who’ve served their sentences are sometimes put into a safe children’s home like Virgen de la Asunción if they have nowhere else to go.
Virgen de la Asunción, meant to accommodate five hundred residents, was in fact responsible for approximately eight hundred youths, who were housed in separate areas for older girls, older boys, younger children, and those with disabilities and illnesses. The smallest area, called Princesas, was for pregnant youths awaiting transfer to another home in Quetztaltenango, the second-largest city in Guatemala. Some of the smaller children, the online publication Nómada later reported, had been born in the home to adolescent girls who may have been impregnated by the boys who were also interned there, or by staff. As we have also learned, parents who decided that they wanted to recover their daughters from the home were sometimes faced with a wall of bureaucracy, or were extorted in return for their children’s release.
When Claudia and I arrived at the home, two young policewomen, one tall and animated, one shorter and quieter, were standing outside the building. They shared what they’d seen and heard on March 8th in the manner of girls excitedly discussing a horror movie. At one point, the taller policewoman, describing the teen-aged girls as “walking like zombies,” aflame, put her own arms out and lurched from side to side. Her colleague, she said, was still traumatized by the smell of burning flesh. The fire had broken out at about nine in the morning, they explained, just as one group of policewomen was relieving those who’d been guarding the girls overnight. The taller policewoman described rushing to the windows of the schoolroom to pass plastic bags filled with water inside. The shorter policewoman then showed us photographs on her cell phone, the kind also circulating on social media—of burned and blackened bodies, many in bluejeans, amid charred wreckage. When asked why the girls hadn’t been let out, or if they knew who had held the key to the door, the policewomen fell silent.
An indigenous couple from Chimaltenango, their faces deeply lined, were also waiting out front. They’d had four children in the home and had recovered only three, but they seemed sure that their missing child wasn’t among those who’d been shut in the schoolroom. As we spoke, the home’s metal doors would occasionally open to let out small groups of teen-age boys, who were being transferred to other homes and institutions. One boy carried a large stuffed animal, a dog, under his arm. It was unclear how many children were still inside, how many had successfully escaped on the night of March 7th, or who might be missing; the home doesn’t have a computerized database.
On Sunday night, Claudia and I spoke to a judge who asked that we not name her; she said that a recent law in Guatemala forbids judges from speaking to the press. She was part of the family-court system that has jurisdiction over Guatemala’s juvenile-detention centers and children’s homes and shelters. She told us that she’d heard that sixty-two children from Virgen de la Asunción were unaccounted for. She believed that some had died, or even been murdered, before the fire. The judge also told us that the girls from the home were being prostituted, although it wasn’t clear by whom.
I was supposed to fly back to New York on Monday, March 13th, but because of a snowstorm my flight was delayed by two days. On Monday, both the Secretary and Sub-Secretary for Social Welfare, Carlos Rodas and Anahy Keller, were arrested, along with Santos Torres, the director of Hogar Seguro Virgen de la Asunción. All three were charged with involuntary manslaughter, abuse of minors, and breach of duty. Torres insisted that it was the police who’d been in possession of the key to the schoolroom door.
It had emerged that the office of the government’s Procurator for Human Rights had received forty-five reports of abuses at the home from 2012 to 2016, and passed them on to the Public Ministry, which had not responded. In October last year, two rapporteurs of the Guatemalan Congress’s Office of Torture Prevention wrote to Attorney General Thelma Aldana; they claimed that the director of the home at that time, Brenda Chamán, had confessed to knowing that girls had been raped there. The rapporteurs asked Aldana—who, working in tandem with the U.N. Commission Against Organized Crime and Impunity in Guatemala, or CICIG, has carried out numerous high-profile prosecutions, including that of former President Pérez Molina—to open an investigation. She passed their request to the Public Ministry prosecutors responsible for investigating such complaints. On Monday, Aldana ordered an investigation into the prosecutors who may have received those denunciations of abuse and not responded to them, saying that if they are found guilty of negligence they will be subject to administrative and even criminal penalties.
Attorney General Aldana is a respected figure in Guatemala and internationally. Unlike, say, in Mexico, the Attorney General and Public Ministry in Guatemala are autonomous not only on paper but in practice. Last year, the United States D.E.A. discovered that organized crime, and perhaps political figures, were plotting to assassinate Aldana; she now moves around Guatemala City accompanied by a security team numbering dozens. As campaigns on social media reveal, the same political and criminal powers that have wanted to see Aldana eliminated are already using the tragedy against her, exploiting the popular outrage over the deaths to try to weaken her authority or force her resignation.
The same day the arrests were made, Claudia contacted a legal counsellor who was part of an official group that had conducted inspections of the government’s children’s homes and detention centers before the fire, and that had been carrying out independent investigations after it. That afternoon, Claudia and I found ourselves sitting in a café, leaning forward over a cell phone, hands cupped to our ears, listening to audio recordings that the legal counsellor had shared with us. The recordings were of interviews with three of the surviving girls, two aged seventeen and one eighteen, conducted in Roosevelt Hospital, in Guatemala City, on March 10th. One of the girls was in stable condition; the other two, with burns over seventy-five and eighty per cent of their bodies, were in critical condition. Within a few days, all three were moved to the United States for treatment.
The girl in the first interview, which opens with a barrage of questions, maintains the same even cadence throughout her testimony. “I’m going to tell only what I remember,” she says, describing how, following the riot, she, along with other girls and boys from the home, had run for “kilometres and kilometres,” with police in pursuit, into the hilly woods that surround Virgen de la Asunción, before the police found them. “As soon as they captured us, they beat us up,” she says. “The policeman who caught me told me to get down on my knees and to put my hands on my head. He put a pistol to my head, he said he didn’t care that I was female and a minor. They brought us back to the home, and they handcuffed us real tight.”
Instead of being returned to their dorms, the runaway girls and boys were made to wait outside. In a handwritten statement signed by more than a dozen members of the school staff on the night of the riots, the monitors, explaining why they had not returned the girls to the building, as per President Morales’s directive, wrote, “We don’t agree that they should be let back inside, given that during the short time they were outside they robbed and beat up innocent people, took drugs, and had sexual relations with each other. Their return puts the rest of the population, who decided not to take part in those events, at risk.”
The youths had tried to sleep on the grass, and then, at one in the morning, they were finally allowed back into the building. The boys returned to their dorms; the girls were taken to a schoolroom, where they were given mattresses but no blankets. The room was locked and guarded through the night by policewomen from the National Civil Police. In the morning, the injured girl explains in her interview, “they woke us and brought us breakfast, everything was calm.” But when some of the girls asked to go to the bathroom, the police refused to open the door. The girls got angry and put mattresses over the windows so that the police couldn’t see inside. She says that three girls caused the fire, and that she’s been told that one of those girls is dead. As the blaze grew, the girls asked for help from the police. “One of the police said, ‘Let these wretches suffer. They were good at escaping, now they can be good at enduring pain.’ “ She adds, “They were watching how we caught on fire, but they were not going to open the door.” The school staff tried to intervene. “We’d been mistreated by some of them before, but when they saw that the situation was serious, they began to spill their tears right there,” she says. “Tears, but why were they spilling them! Because they were scared.”
The girl in the second recording similarly describes how she had escaped, gotten lost in the woods, and been found by the police, who beat her, held a pistol to her head, and sprayed her and her companions with what might have been pepper spray. “Our eyes really stung,” she says. In the morning, “we asked the police to please take us to the bathroom, and the police didn’t want to let us out. They told us to rot.” She describes the girls having built “a little house” with mattresses “so that they could do their necessities inside.” When one of the girls set fire to one of the mattresses, which were twenty years old and made of thin cotton, the flames quickly spread. “All of us, we all began to shout to the police to let us out, that we were burning. The police told us they didn’t care, that just like we’d been good for running away, that we should be good for putting up with the fire.” She recalls seeing one girl “in flames, and she asked me for help. That’s when I fainted.” When she woke up, she recalls, “I did everything I could to get up and walk, but the police, seeing that I was burning and choking, started to hit me. They told me that I couldn’t leave, and beat me. Then some monitors threw water on me because my face was burning.”
Unlike the girl in the first two recordings, the girl in the third hadn’t rioted or run away; she had found herself in the schoolroom after trying to retrieve her little sister. Speaking in a tired, hoarse voice, she says that the riot had begun after the girls were shut in a dormitory for three days. “They wouldn’t let us out for anything,” she says. “They kept us like caged dogs.” During the riot, she recalls, girls climbed up onto the buildings’ roofs and smashed windows; boys from the San Gabriel sector of the home joined them. She also mentions that the girls locked in the schoolroom had “gasoline”—the counsellor suggested that it might have been paint thinner, used for getting high. When asked if she’s had any news of her sister, she says, “No.”
All three girls agree that it was the police who shut them in the room; the monitors only returned from attending to children in the other dorms after the fire started. But it is not yet known who decided to lock them inside, who was in possession of the key that could have saved their lives, and why, when the girls were screaming for help, nobody opened the schoolroom door. Was it malice, or homicidal intent, or some kind of accident? Why were only the girls locked up, while the boys were allowed to return to their quarters? And what, exactly, had been going on at the school that made the girls so desperate to escape?
The source who gave us the recordings told us that Virgen de la Asunción was sometimes guarded by just one person at night, and that the girls’ customary dorm area had a side door that he suspected the maras might have used to take girls out for the night. (He said that he had seen the initials “M.S.,” for Mara Salvatrucha, tattooed on the feet of two of the hospitalized girls, although the tattoos might have pre-dated the girls’ arrival at the home.)
María Eugenia Villareal, of ECPAT, an international N.G.O. that tracks and fights the sexual abuse and trafficking of minors, has been helping with the efforts to relocate hundreds of minors from Virgen de la Asunción to other homes and shelters. When I spoke to her, Villareal expressed concern that none of the surviving youths were receiving trauma counselling. She had spent the last two days testifying before various Guatemalan congressional committees about the conditions of state children’s homes, including Virgen de la Asunción. She didn’t mince her words. The monitors at the home “were abusing the girls, they sold them drugs, and they took some of them out at night to prostitute them,” she said. She mentioned an article in El Periódico that had been accompanied by a photograph of monitors who had worked at Virgen de la Asunción: men with pistols in their belts and rifles over their shoulders, some holding beers and grinning at the camera. “It doesn’t matter what the children endure, because they’re indigenous or extremely poor,” Villareal said, summing up Morales’s attitude to the deaths. “This is why so many try to migrate to the United States. It’s because they’re fleeing the violence of the state, of their communities, of their families. Every type of violence is present here.”
On Tuesday night, at the San Juan de Dios hospital, I met Dr. Edwin Bravo, who had just returned from Galveston, Texas, where he’d travelled with three of the survivors to the Shriners Hospital for Children there. He was wearing a black fleece bearing the initials “U.T.M.B.,” for the University of Texas Medical Branch, which he’d bought there to keep warm; he’d left Guatemala in just his medical scrubs. Bravo was proud of how his hospital had treated the seventeen patients it had received, explaining how his team had started to set up an emergency burn and trauma unit as soon as he’d received news of the fire at the children’s home. Most of the girls were so badly burned, not only on their skin but also in their breathing passages and lungs, that they’d had to be put into induced comas. He had reached out to colleagues at Shriners Hospital’s renowned burn unit, which had immediately offered help. At Shriners, he’d seen how teams of surgeons immediately began cleaning the girls’ wounds, preparing them to receive synthetic skins. Now he was back in Guatemala, briskly walking us through the halls of a hospital where resources were clearly far more limited. Bravo exuded competence and compassion. His last patient from Hogar Seguro Virgen de la Asunción was leaving that night, for a hospital in Cincinnati; she would be accompanied by another Guatemalan doctor. She was unconscious, and almost entirely wrapped in gauze bandages and blue robes, but I could see patches of her brown face, her toes. Bravo knew her name but little else. Nobody had come to claim her, to visit or to ask after her. She was alone, a poor Central American girl headed to the United States to receive a new skin, and perhaps the chance of a new life.
Francisco Goldman is a contributing writer for newyorker.com, and the author of “The Interior Circuit: A Mexico City Chronicle.”
SOURCE: THE NEW YORKER