Latin America & Caribbean

Guatemala ex-minister charged over deadly shelter fire

Police agents guard the entrance of Virgen de la Asuncion children's shelter after 40 girls died during a fire on March 8, in San Jose Pinula, about 10 km east of Guatemala City on March 15, 2017. Image copyright AFP
Image caption The facility resembles a prison more than a shelter with barbed wire fences and high walls

The top prosecutor in Guatemala has charged the former minister of social welfare and his deputy with negligent homicide over the deaths of 41 girls in a fire at a government-run shelter.

The director of the Virgen de Asunción shelter has also been charged.

The three suspects were sacked by President Jimmy Morales after the deadly fire on 8 March.

Months before the tragedy, prosecutors had recommended the shelter be closed over allegations of abuse.

Former social welfare minister Carlos Rodas, his deputy, Anahi Keller, and the ex-director of the shelter, Santos Torres, have been charged with negligent homicide, abuse of power, mistreatment of minors and failure to fulfil their duties.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Ex-social welfare minister Carlos Rodas is one of three people charged with negligent homicide

Prosecutors argued the three lacked the necessary experience to run the shelter which housed as many as 700 children.

Defence lawyers will be making their case later on Wednesday.

'Disgraceful treatment'

In court, prosecutors described the events leading up to the fire.

They said that the night before dozens of girls tried to escaped from the facility, which was infamous for its overcrowding and allegations of mistreatment.

Those who managed to get away were caught by police and returned to the shelter in San José Pinula.

As a punishment, 56 of them were locked in a room measuring 6.8m by 7m (22ft by 23 ft).

"There was no bathroom nor any drinking water, they were locked up and their treatment was disgraceful," prosecutor Edwin Marroquín said.

One of the girls set a mattress alight in protest at their treatment, he said.

Outrage

The fire quickly spread and within nine minutes the temperature reached 300C, Mr Marroquín said.

Seventeen girls were killed at the scene and another 24 died in hospital in the following weeks.

According to the prosecutors, fire fighters were not called in time and were originally told there was a riot, not a fire.

Image copyright EPA
Image caption Guatemalans took to the streets to demand changes to justice for the victims

The tragedy caused outrage in Guatemala, especially after it emerged that there had been concerns about human rights violations in the home as early as 2013.

In November 2016, a court order was filed, calling for precautionary measures to be taken but the social welfare ministry rejected the accusations and appealed.

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