Sunday, April 30, 2017

MY PERSPECTIVE – OUT OF HELL

Friday, April 14, 2017, 17:26
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March 8, 2017 was International Women's Day. It was also a day purely Out of Hell in a Government-run hostel for young girls outside of Guatemala City. The most analytical and comprehensive account of what happened and why is the one from the New Yorker Magazine on March 19 written by acclaimed writer and journalist Francisco Goldman. I recommend it. I will try to draw from his fairly long article, and also to make some comparison of the horrific event in Guatemala and the just as horrific death of three Belizean teenage girls at the Youth Hostel at Gracie Rock last year.   Two days before the terrible inferno at the Hogar Seguro Virgen de la Asuncion (what an ironic name for that hostel), there had been a riot of the teenagers there, as they protested inhumane conditions and rapes of many girls. The hostel, originally designed for 500 residents, at the time housed some 800, and instead of being a place for care and refuge it had become a nightmarish jail and place of abuse. On March 7, during the riot many girls started throwing rocks at their teachers and the police, shouting “Rape us here in front of everybody!!” Many girls escaped for a time. Years before, several staffers were found guilty of sexual abuse, and some punishments amounted to torture and clearly violated the children's human rights. Many girls were prostituted to “maras” or gang members. And the institutional neglect was horrendous. The Secretariat for Social Welfare had completely ignored numerous complaints from parents and concerned officials.   The count of those who died on March 8 now exceeds forty girls!! What happened in essence is that after the escape and riot, many of the girls were locked up in a classroom, not even being allowed to go to the bathroom. They were given mattresses without blankets, and in order to call attention to their plight, a few girls lit mattresses on fire. The police guarding the classroom ignored desperate cries from the girls to open the doors, saying that they should suffer because they were good at misbehaving and escaping, so they should be good at outing the fire. Before long dozens of girls were literally on fire, and the terrible carnage became apparent when the fire was finally put out, burnt bodies counted, and victims taken to hospital with unimaginable burns.   As with the fire at our own Youth Hostel in which three girls perished, it was not clear who had the keys to the room where the girls were detained. Hostel officials blamed the police. And likewise both horrid occurrences took place after the girls had escaped and were recaptured. Evident too is an abominable breakdown of institutional responsibility, even after warning signs and several prior incidents that should have alerted authorities to serious problems in both cases.   In Guatemala, however, unlike here at home there has been hell to pay. The Minister of Social Welfare, Carlos Rodas, initially did not resign, but later he was forced to tender his resignation, and by March 13 the Minister, Vice-Minister Anahy Keller, and the Director of the Hogar, Santos Torres were arrested and charged with involuntary manslaughter, abuse of minors, and breach of duty. Also Attorney General, Thelma Aldana ordered an investigation into prosecutors who may have received the terrible complaints of abuse and not responded to them, saying that if they are found guilty of negligence they will be subject to administrative and even criminal penalties.   Here at home very little has come out about the investigations and inquest into the deaths of our young girls. It has been pretty hush-hush. I understand that the inquest found institutional breakdowns but no individual or individuals directly criminally liable. Also it appears that only one of the families has received significant financial compensation thus far, a clear indication of         acceptance of Government liability. How different things are here. Earlier, I wrote that I was shocked that there has not been more outrage as to what was allowed to happen here. If a light is not shone brightly on what happened and the public is not given information, how can we ensure that there is no repeat of this Belizean tragedy? I believe that we should have demanded far more information than authorities were willing to divulge. Last year in Belize and March 8 this year in Guatemala were days Out of Hell for poor, vulnerable young girls. Yes, it is always the poor and vulnerable who suffer the most abuse and neglect. We cannot speak for Guatemala, but we must make sure that this does not happen here again.
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