Note: This article contains graphic descriptions of sexual violence against children.
Guatemala's child protection system was shaken to the core on March 8, 2017, but nothing seems to have changed during President Jimmy Morales' administration.
The fire last year at the government-run Virgen de la Asunción Safe Home took the lives of 41 girls, but it has not become the catalyst it was expected to be in terms of resolving the circumstances that brought and kept the girls there in the first place. The case is now over a year old, and impunity for those responsible continues.
Victims' relatives and organizations working on the case have complained that Attorney General Thelma Aldana has only held one hearing about it and has shifted responsibility for it to her deputy, Secretary General Mayra Véliz, who is vying for Aldana's position.
But like the attorney general, Véliz has not shown interest in thoroughly investigating allegations of torture and sexual exploitation networks; they are instead in the hands of the prosecutor's office in charge of child welfare cases. No one knows when the results of that investigation will be released.
The Virgen de la Asunción Safe Home was created in 2010 during the government of President Álvaro Colom. It never had protocols or procedures in place for riots or other emergencies. The situation only worsened after President Otto Pérez Molina took office in 2012. And in March 2017, just two years into the presidency of Jimmy Morales, the massacre happened.
The home was divided into five large sectors where children were housed based on gender and age. It should be noted, however, that some adults were housed there as well.
Both male and female youths over the age of 13 were sent to specific buildings according to a profile assigned to them when they entered the home. Virgen de la Asunción administration decided to use these buildings to group them according to their needs and origins. There were buildings for children entering for drug abuse and homelessness, and others for victims of human trafficking..
After the fire, the institutions tasked with caring for the children had different figures of how many boys and girls were housed there.
Traumatic First Days
Clara entered Virgen de la Asunción at midnight one day in September 2016. She was 14 years old and carried a backpack with several changes of clothes. A teacher opened the door and woke up the other girls inside with a yell: "New arrival!"
Everyone turned to look at Clara. She made a beeline for her assigned bed, and when the teacher closed the door, a group of girls began to interrogate her. In light of accusations that she was a member of the Barrio 18 gang, they decided to give her the "bienvenida," or the "welcome." About 10 teens beat and kicked her that first night. They also gave her 18 "pechugazos," which was slang at the institution for double-fisted blows to the chest.
In another account, a judge ordered three adolescent youths to the children's safe home in April 2012. According to their intake paperwork, they were sent there for "drug abuse, living in the street, insubordination and possible gang membership."
They were 13, 14 and 15 years old, and a dark place awaited them. Their first day at Virgen de la Asunción was recorded in a formal complaint.
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"On Saturday afternoon they gave us the 'welcome,' which is 18 'pechugazos,' or punches to the chest. I'm all purple. After that, they asked if I wanted them to 'nalguear' [sexually abuse] me. Four of them grabbed me and started to masturbate. They put [their penises] on my face. They told me to suck them off. They beat me up because I didn't want to. Then the four of them covered my eyes, grabbed my hands and put it in me from behind."
After the two other youths who entered the institution in April 2012 faced similar treatment, they were transferred to another sector of the facility.
It turns out that the three children had come from a dark and frightening place as well: their own home. They sought refuge in the state because one of their relatives, a 33-year-old man, had been sexually abusing them. He was never found, and reports they filed against him have been forgotten in a sea of administrative records.
Virgen de la Asunción was like a dangerous city, where children who did not know how to take care of themselves were only made more vulnerable. They soon learned that after relying on their wits to escape the perils of the streets or their own homes, they would have to do the same at the state-run institution.
Violence among the children, sexual abuse, the employees' lack of ability and experience and the facility's lack of procedures and protocols came together to complicate an already difficult life for the youths who were staying there.
For example, one allegation states that on October 1, 2016, a 15-year-old girl was attacked by a group of 20 girls from another building who hit and kicked her in the face, abdomen, legs and back. The complaint further alleges that one of the girls threatened the other because of a supposed gang rivalry.
The very next day, two teenagers reported that girls from other buildings came to look for them, and to get them to come out of their dormitory they flickered the lights and finally resorted to physically removing them from their beds. They were then assaulted by approximately 26 girls, according to the complaint.
The girls then noticed the presence of two teachers in the room. They told them to get off the floor, gave them brooms and told them to clean the bathroom. But then a teacher locked one of the girls in the shower and asked her what had happened. Afraid of being killed, she described the events, but finished her complaint with "that's all I can say."
Another complaint recalls events from a Saturday afternoon in August 2012. Four children were playing marbles on the wet ground. It had just rained.
"On Saturday I was playing marbles with [some girls], and because it rained beetles were coming out. Two of the girls gave a beetle to another girl. She put it on my shirt and I got scared and got it off my shirt. Then, they did it again, but this time they put it in my mouth. I started to cry and took it out. Then [the girl] got mad and grabbed me by the throat with her hands, but she put her leg on my chest. I thought she was going to kill me. I felt like I was running out of air. The other two were laughing. That was when a teacher arrived, and she helped me. But I didn't go back. It was hard for me. I felt like I was going to die."
The teacher confirmed that the boy came close to dying. "On Saturday I was monitoring the playground when I realized that the girl was choking him. The boy was purple, and his eyes were white. She had him with both hands around his neck and her leg on his chest. When I got there and told her to let him go, she began to insult me. The boy took approximately one minute to come to."
Another event documented in reports took place in December 2012, when the government of President Otto Pérez Molina and Vice President Roxana Baldetti was in the middle of official celebrations for Baktun, an important event in the Mayan calendar. Two teenage girls were walking together. One of them gave a statement as part of the complaint:
"She was walking with me when the policeman ask her if she was going to give him something. She told him yes. Then he took her up to the the little room that's up there in the sentry box where the tower is. It was around six in the evening. They didn't see that I had followed them, and I saw what they did through a hole in the door. She took off her clothes, and the policeman did too. Then he got on top of her. When we left, she told me she would beat me up if I said anything, so I didn't say anything until now."
In a letter from February 2012, a group of psychologists working at Virgen de la Asunción Safe Home denounced the exposure of minors to ill-treatment. "Young girls and teenage girls alike repeatedly reported having been subjected to physical, verbal and psychological abuse consisting of threats; humiliation using profanity and name-calling; and punishments consisting of excessive physical exercise, food deprivation and exposure in their underwear in the early morning hours in the rain. Furthermore, it is known that people working in this section [of the home] allowed these adolescents to attack others as a form of punishment."
The names of six monitors were mentioned in the letter, and its authors emphasized that the authorities of the children's home had already been alerted to the situation, but that they never obseved any follow-up or intervention measures taken in response to the allegations.
No Place for Innocence
All the boys and girls at the Virgen de la Asunción Safe Home were potential victims, including children with emotional disabilities and children with diverse sexual identities.
One case was William, who entered the home diagnosed with an intellectual disability and a compulsive disorder. He was receiving medical treatment and specialized education, but he was not safe.
"We were informed by a female teacher that the child had been sexually abused by a male teacher one day when he was on duty in dormitory seven. Said teacher was on duty with children and adolescents with special needs from January 16 to January 31 while the female teacher was on vacation."
To address the allegations, the psychologists assigned to that sector of the facility conducted an interview, making accommodations to address the teenager’s intellectual disability. They obtained the following statement: "Professor César tricked me. He touched me with his penis (indicating on a drawing). He put it in my buttocks and put it in me. I was lying down. The others were watching TV. He also did this to me (using a pencil to make a gesture signifying masturbation)."
Those at the center of these cases had spent less than a month at the institution.
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On October 10, 2016, an attorney for the Social Welfare Secretariat and the Virgen de la Asunción Safe Home reported that an adolescent girl had been "working to capture [other] adolescent girls housed at the shelter, forcing them to leave in exchange for money, clothes, housing and education, which was not true because security at the perimeter of the institution observed that when they leave, there are people waiting in vehicles to transport them. They abandon the home for two, three, four, even five days. Some return, but there are others whose whereabouts we don’t know."
On October 13, 2016, a minor said that in September she escaped from the safe home with six other girls and that one of them convinced them to go to a house located in Colonia El Limón, in a section of Guatemala City called Zona 18, which is known for heavy gang activity. It was a two-level, unpainted cinder block house. Out front, there was a sentry box from which people saw the girls enter the house, but they said nothing.
"When we got to the house, they told us we were going to be okay, that they were going to give us clothes, money, phones, and what we had to do was watch the trucks. I don't know what kinds of trucks they were. They are from the Barrio 18, and if we saw that people from the MS13 were doing anything, they were going to beat their asses, and they told us that they were going to tattoo and shave us so we could be something, and they turned the volume to the sound system up. Later that night, I could tell they were trying to open the door of the room we were sleeping in, but they couldn't."
Some of the girls escaped the next day.
After the Tragedy
On March 8, 2017, journalists from Nómada went to cover the massacre of the 41 adolescent girls. They began talking to neighbors of the Virgen de la Asunción Safe Home in an effort to understand what might have happened to cause the teens to rebel and attempt to escape the previous afternoon.
A woman who said she was a neighbor spoke with tear-filled eyes. She said that on March 7, she approached the safe home when she heard that they were having problems, and that she saw how the girls were throwing rocks at the facility staff and the police while yelling, "Rape us here, in front of everyone. Come here and rape us, then, if you want to do it again."
"This was a revolt by young girls. Anyone who lives near here knows this is hell," the woman finished between tears.
To remember the young female victims of the Virgen de la Asunción Children's Home is to imagine them in flames, fighting for their lives, and it is to remember the sluggishness in the response of the Guatemalan government and its justice and child protection systems.