For their protection

Guatemala is no country for women:

As fire swept through the classroom, the pleas from the 56 girls locked inside began to fade.

Most were unconscious or worse by then, as an eerie silence replaced their panic-stricken shouts.

The police officers guarding the door — who had refused to unlock it despite the screams — waited nine minutes before stepping inside. They got water to cool down the scorching knob.

Inside, dozens of girls placed in the care of the Guatemalan state lay sprawled on the blackened floor. Forty-one of them died.

It was one of the deadliest tragedies in Guatemala since the end of its civil war decades ago, and it happened inside a group home for at-risk youth who had been put there by the government, supposedly for their own protection.

Much like the way the Irish government handed generations of children over to the Catholic church “supposedly for their own protection” but in fact for their deprivation and brutalization.

Now, nearly two years later, the trials against public officials accused of failing to prevent the deaths have all begun.

But a review of more than two dozen case files of victims and survivors — along with interviews of family members, group home employees and public officials — reveals a pattern of physical, psychological and sexual abuse allegations at the facility stretching back for years.

Six children died there between 2012 and 2015. There were 25 cases of reported abuse. Relatives of some girls report they were forced into sex with adult men – they were government-raped, in short.

The deaths are a reflection of the cruel passage to adulthood for many young girls in Guatemala, a journey often marked by poverty, violence and desperation. The nation has one of the highest child pregnancy rates, and the homicide rate for women is among the worst in the world.

The girls, who had broken no laws and posed no threat to society, were victims even before the fire. As survivors of sexual abuse, violence or abandonment — often at the hands of their own families — the government had assigned them to the institution for their own safety. In theory, the world outside posed the greatest threat to them.

“These are girls who had been abused, sometimes raped, by members of their own family,” said Norma Cruz, the director of Survivors, a group representing the families of nearly two dozen victims. “These girls were placed there for their protection.”

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