Guatemala’s Justice Ministry said it would investigate a fire at a state-run juvenile home near Guatemala City that left at least 21 dead on Wednesday, local media reported.
The dead at Hogar Seguro Virgen de la Asuncion, in San Jose Pinula, 21 kilometres outside the capital, were all girls between the ages of 14 and 17, authorities said.
Dozens more were hospitalized, mostly in a serious condition. Guatemala City’s Roosevelt Hospital was treating 18 victims for second and third degree burns, hospital director Carlos Soto said.
Firefighters posted photographs on social media of what appeared to be numerous ash-smeared bodies partially covered by blankets in a large room.
The Guatemala office of the United Nations Children’s Fund criticized the incident, saying “these children and adolescents must be protected” in a message on its Twitter account.
The deaths “make us ask ourselves, as a state, what are we doing?” former attorney general Thelma Aldana said, according to news reports.
Family members of those housed at the centre gathered outside it Wednesday in scenes of chaos and consternation, as firefighters carried out survivors crying in pain.
The Hogar Seguro – “safe home” – housed more than 600 juveniles. It was created for girls taken from dangerous or abusive homes into state custody, but also housed some who had committed crimes. Boys and girls were housed in separate facilities.
The centre had drawn scrutiny since at least 2015, following reports of mistreatment, overcrowding and sexual trafficking of minors, according to local newspaper Prensa Libre.
The fire started when teenagers reportedly set fire to mattresses in a dormitory, according to Social Welfare Secretary Carlos Rodas, whose ministry oversaw the centre.
The incident came a day after dozens of juvenile residents were reported to have fled the centre amid rioting over poor conditions and treatment.
Authorities had sought court permission overnight to transfer instigators of the riot, Rodas said, adding that it had been a “failure” to house juvenile offenders in the same facility as wards of the state.
He blamed the “system” for the centre’s deficiencies, saying the number of juveniles referred to the centre had doubled since 2016.
Guatemala’s Congress issued a resolution condemning the incident and calling for the removal of the responsible authorities.