Photo by Peace Brigades International.

On International Women’s Day this year, Peace Brigades International-Guatemala Project accompanied La Red de Sanadoras Ancestrales del Feminismo Comunitario (the Network of Ancestral Healers of Community Feminism) at a ceremony in Guatemala City.

They were marking the second anniversary of a preventable tragedy that claimed the lives of 41 teenage girls and severely injured 15 others.

On March 8, 2017, a fire swept through a small locked classroom at the state-run “Hogar Seguro Virgen de la Asunción” group home on the outskirts of Guatemala City.

Most of the children at the group home had committed no crime. They had been sent there by the court system because they had either run away from home, had been abused, were homeless, or were young migrants.

Before the fire, six young people had died from preventable health-related complications at the home and there were numerous reports of rape, sexual abuse, torture, forced prostitution, rotten food, filthy bedsheets, and violent orderlies.

As The Associated Press reported, “Several reports criticizing the shelter were put out by the country’s attorney general and the National Adoption System in 2015 and 2016. One recommended the gradual closure of the facility, and another its immediate closure.”

That article adds, “Despite the complaints and the reports, the abuse continued.”

Immediately before the fire, 108 girls and boys ran away en masse from the group home because of the horrific conditions there.

After they were apprehended, the boys and girls were locked in separate rooms for hours as punishment — the boys in an auditorium, the girls in a small classroom. 56 girls were locked in that classroom overnight without any access to a washroom.

The following morning, some of the girls set a mattress in the classroom on fire in the hope that it would force the police to open the door. The police officers guarding the room reportedly argued for 9 minutes about whether to open the door.

 41 girls died in that fire and 15 were severely injured.

This action alert from the Maritimes-Guatemala Breaking the Silence Network (BTS) calls on the Trudeau government to:

– Denounce the Guatemalan state’s role in the death of these girls;

– Use its diplomatic channels to urge the Public Prosecutor (MP) to investigate and prosecute all those responsible in an effective timely manner, so that they don’t remain in impunity

– Undertake advocacy efforts aimed at urging the Guatemalan state to protect girls and women throughout the country.

BTS also recently held a speaking tour with Mayra Jiménez who is with the collective 8 Tijax, a group seeking justice for the victims of this state crime.

On March 8, Sandra Cuffe reported in Al Jazeera, “Several government employees, including police, are now on trial for their role in the fire.”

Cuffe also quotes feminist activist Brenda Hernandez who says, “It is one case, the case of the fire. But behind it, there is a whole series of cases that remains in impunity.”

You can read more about this tragedy in The New Yorker, The Story Behind the Fire That Killed Forty Teen-Age Girls in a Guatemalan Children’s Home.

You can also read more about the Network of Ancestral Healers of Community Feminism in the January 2019 rabble blog Guatemalan community feminists seek end to violence against the land and women. Peace Brigades International has provided protective accompaniment to this group since February 2018.

Image: Peace Brigades International.

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Brent Patterson

Brent Patterson is a political activist, writer and the executive director of Peace Brigades International-Canada. He lives in Ottawa on the traditional, unceded and unsurrendered territories of the Algonquin...