16 Marzo 2017 17:32
60 girls recently attempted to escape from the Virgin of the Assumption Safe House in Guatemala, a state-controlled refuge for young victims of aggression that is currently under investigation for human trafficking. The girls, who were subsequently held overnight by police, started a fire in a desperate attempt to escape the cycle of violence and sexual abuse to which they were being subjected on a daily basis. The resulting blaze has left at least 39 dead.
Social media was flooded with messages of outrage. 'The fact that these girls would rather be burned alive than spend another day in the refuge should be enough to make the state take action and close it down permanently' tweeted journalist Carolina Vázquez. In just two years, more than 300 girls have risked their lives jumping over a six-metre wall to escape the refuge's harrowing conditions. The situation is out of control.
In a country with record numbers of missing people – as many as 45,000 according to some estimates – those most at risk are young girls and boys. The Alba-Keneth Alert, a system created to help investigate the disappearance of minors, registered 6,000 missing children in 2015. More than 2,000 have yet to be found.
More than 2,000 children are missing in Guatemala. Many of them were under the protection of the state
Despite 16 complaints being filed against the Virgin of the Assumption Safe House, and frequent requests made for its closure, the refuge is the only one of its type in Guatemala and it remains open. The Human Rights Prosecutor and the Attorney-General's Office have both denounced the shelter for the frequent disappearances and they are currently investigating a possible child-trafficking network. It is hoped that the testimonies of the children will establish whether the shelter exploited them sexually and allowed drug trafficking on its premises. Mafia links are also being investigated.
The 'safe house' that prostitutes children
'My daughter was raped by an American man,' says one brave mother who spent months fighting to recover her 17-year-old daughter. For security reasons, due to the numerous threats the girl's mother has received, she prefers not to reveal her name or that of her daughter. For the purposes of this report we will refer to the daughter as Sara. The nightmare began last August when Sara began suffering severe bullying at school. Not wanting to worry her sick mother, Sara suffered in silence for months.
Her young age and her fear of what might happen to her prompted Sara to run away from home. She was then picked up by authorities and taken to the Justice of the Peace Court in Guatemala where she was admitted to the Virgin of the Assumption Safe House.
The refuge was founded in 2006 to provide shelter to victims of sexual abuse, gender violence, bullying, neglect and ill treatment. It is controlled by the state and financed with public funds. Since 2015, it has received more than 16 complaints before the Office of the Human Rights Procurator. This has led the Attorney General's Office to investigate the shelter for alleged trafficking of minors.
Sara's mother had heard of these abuses and she attempted to stop authorities from taking her daughter there. Her pleas were ignored however, and she wasn't allowed to visit her daughter. Eventually, after a month, she was able to to see her daughter during a hearing. 'Her face was bruised and her body covered in tattoos. Her eyes were sad and she hung her head down.' recalls her mother.
Despite all these setbacks, the mother did not give up. She eventually managed to speak with one of the children who had fled the centre. 'What she told me was awful. The children are treated badly all the time, especially those with mental disabilities. The prettiest girls are put into a special section of the shelter and made to work as prostitutes,' she explains. 'I couldn't bear to think of my daughter being in there against her will. And I had no way to reach her. Those were two horrible months.'
The prettiest girls are put into a special section of the shelter and made to work as prostitutes
Sara's mother began her own personal crusade. She collected testimonies from minors and gathered evidence to try and force authorities to let her see her daughter. Once again, she was ignored. Eventually, Sara escaped on her own. She was later found in the Parque Central, in Guatemala City.
'It took her a long time to tell me what had happened in there,' Sara's mother recalls. 'She was terrified. She was traumatized and angry. But gradually she began to tell me what they did. She said they would give the girls a liquid to drink at night. We think they were drugging them. One of the girls vomited it back up. Sara said that a man with an American accent came and abused her. He was escorted by one of the Deltas (security guards).'
Sara got pregnant. But her leap from the six-metre-high wall during her escape caused her to lose the baby. She is currently undergoing medical examinations and it is hoped that doctors will find evidence that will hold up in court.
'What my daughter lived through was hell. Children who got ill were left untreated. And they were beaten continually. One girl was beaten so hard that they broke a rib and she began vomiting blood. The others never saw her again. I don't understand how these people get money from the government and nobody does anything,' says Sara's mother.
Violence between residents, a lack of training, and frequent escapes
In addition to protecting children and adolescents in vulnerable situations, the Virgin of the Assumption Safe House also has the job of housing minors with criminal records and disabilities, a fact that has been criticised by both the Attorney General's Office and numerous NGOs. GAM, an NGO that helps to find missing people and that has taken the case of one of the shelter's missing children, says that although they lack concrete evidence, testimonies indicate that mistreatment and abuse is also being carried out by other residents. It was thanks to this NGO and to the work of journalist Mariela Castañón that irregularities in the shelter first began to be exposed.
'Last year, a 14-year-old girl was strangled with a scarf by another inmate,' explained Mario Polanco, director of GAM. 'they shouldn't place young victims of abuse and bullying together with abusers or those with a history of bullying,' says Polanco. The Office of the Human Rights Procurator disagrees, saying that all minors should be protected – without differentiating between 'good and bad' – because minors with criminal records have also suffered violence and need attention and care.
Since 2015, 300 minors have escaped from the shelter. The Alba-Keneth Alert System registered 142 disappearances from the refuge last year alone. 84 of those children have still not been found
Castañón denounces the fact that the state has refused to take action against the safe home, even when international bodies such as UNICEF have demanded its immediate closure. 'It's clear that the Guatemalan state doesn't care about its children. What is happening in that centre is an atrocity, and yet it remains open,' she says.
One thing that the NGOs and the Office of the Human Rights Procurator agree on is the lack of training of the majority of workers in the centre, and the absence of specialised attention for children. 'The workers have no training. The attention given to the minors is not specialised. There are no therapies for children who have been sexually abused, or for those who have been badly treated or bullied. Nor are there any drug detoxification programmes,' says Ana Lucía Pelaez from the Office of the Human Rights Procurator.
More than 300 children have escaped from the centre since 2015. Just last year, the Alba-Keneth Alert System registered 142 disappearances from the safe house. 84 children have yet to be found.
Raul is one of the children who ran away from the shelter. He currently lives on the street. 'I'd rather live like this than go back to that centre,' he told a journalist from the Crónica, a local paper. 'They beat us every day. We were harassed and insulted constantly. They called us scum,' the boy says. Raúl came to the centre when he was 12, after his mother had beat him so hard she cracked his head open. He is now one of many children who live on the streets of Guatemala. With no resources or family, the only method he has to escape the harshness of his reality is to sniff glue.
Residents have also complained about drugs being trafficked in the shelter. Some agree to have sex with officials in exchange for drugs. Other residents are used to traffic drugs outside the centre.
The home is overcrowded. It has capacity for 400, but twice that number have been housed, forcing children to share mattresses and toothbrushes
The Office of the Human Rights Procurator says that 'the home is overcrowded. It has capacity for 400, but twice that number have been housed, forcing children to share mattresses and toothbrushes.' The place is also lacking in basic standards of hygiene and cleanliness. 'A group of specialised doctors is now examining the children. They are finding that many of them have nits and lice.'
There have also been cases of malnutrition. Sara's mother says that her daughter was often forced to consume iodine and food with worms in it. When the workers wanted to punish the girls they would refuse them food. The centre was also apparently frequently visited by strange people who were neither residents nor workers.
In stark contrast to the impoverished and distressing conditions in which the children are forced to live, the shelter receives a great deal of public money and its workers receive high salaries. Investigations reveal that most of the staff are hired because of their connections with the people who manage the centre. Salaries go from 3,000 quetzales a month (400 euros) for the concierge to 13,000-18,000 quetzales (between 1,7000 and 2,300 euros) for the deputy directors and director of the shelter. The minimum salary in Guatemala is 11 dollars a day, while 60% of the population lives below the poverty line.
The Social Welfare Department is in charge of allocating funds to the shelter. This year, the department budget is 225 million quetzales (30 million euros). The secretary, Carlos Rodas, assured the La Hora newspaper that in order to cover all his department's needs, he would need 305 million. There is no information about how much of this money goes to the shelter.
Following the scandals and the investigation by the Attorney General's Office, the director of the shelter resigned, as did the secretary and vice-secretary of the Social Welfare Department. The position of secretary is now occupied by Rodas, while Anais Keller is his second in command. PlayGround tried to contact the department but has yet to receive a response. However, the new secretary has assured Guatemalan journalists that specialised personnel (psychologists, therapists and medical professionals) have now been hired, and that security in the facility has been reinforced.
Salaries go from 3,000 quetzales a month (400 euros) for the concierge to 13,000-18,000 quetzales (between 1,7000 and 2,300 euros) for the deputy directors and director of the shelter
The Social Welfare Department is connected to the First Lady's Social Affairs Secretariat (SOSEP), which has a budget of 160 million quetzales. It was under the presidency of Álvaro Colom that the secretariat grew significantly in importance when his then wife, Sandra Torres, channeled large quantities of money into the department. Her ambitions later led her to divorce her husband to enable her to run for election as a candidate. Guatemalan law doesn't currently allow spouses of presidents to take office. Torres maintains that she is 'married to the people'.
Torres's sister and nieces are serving sentences for looting bank accounts and misappropriation of public money. They claim that the mastermind behind the plundering was Torres, but this has never been proven. Torres ran for election in 2015, attaining 32 members of parliament for her party, UNE (National Unity of Hope).
While the investigations continue, the refuge remains open. And meanwhile, Sara's mother has still not received an explanation for what happened. She is unequivocal when voicing her views on the Virgin of the Assumption Safe House. 'That place is a business. They are profiting by prostituting children, and no one does anything to stop it. I'm risking my life by saying it, but I'm willing to die if it will keep my daughter safe,' she says.