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Hogar Seguro Tragedy: no support from Guatemalan State

Three survivors of the Virgen de la Asunción Orphanage are not receiving the pension granted to them in law: Why not?

SourceOcote

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This piece was first published in Spanish by Ocote, a communications organization founded in Guatemala and led mostly by women, as part of their #NoFueElFuego series. Taking a diversity of viewpoints, Ocote attempts a form of journalism based on a thoughtful cultural dialogue in the hope of fostering reflection, conversations, and closeness between the citizens of central America. It was translated into English for the WRV blog by Hebe Powell


Three of the 15 survivors of the fire at the Virgen de la Asunción Orphanage have not been receiving the lifetime pension granted to them by the Guatemalan Congress. Decree 16-2018 entitling survivors to this pension was enacted to ensure their complete recovery, but for these three young women its purpose is not being fulfilled. 

Recently, Ocote requested a report from the Guatemalan Congress to follow up on the payment of the lifetime pension to the 15 survivors of the Virgen de la Asunción Orphanage fire. They discovered there were no records of payments to three of the entitled survivors. 

It was only after extensive cross-checking of the information they’d received from Congress with other documentation—from the Social Services Bureau (Secretaría de Bienestar Social: SBS), judicial documents, missing persons’ alerts, and other Congress records—that Ocote was able to uncover the identities of the three young women in question. We also discovered some of the reasons given as to why these young women were not receiving the pensions they were legally entitled to. For security reasons we will call these youngsters B., C., and D. to protect their true identities. 

Until November 28 2022, Ocote had not been able to contact the young women involved. 

On 7 March 2017, B., C., and D. were among a group of girls that tried to run away from the Virgen de la Asunción Orphanage, a place that should have given them refuge, but instead mistreated them. Because of their escape attempt, they were locked in a classroom along with 53 other young girls. On 8 March, a fire started inside the room and for nine minutes and thirty seconds, nobody opened the door. As a result, 41 girls died; B., C., and D. were among the 15 survivors. 

In 2018, as part of a reparation package to enable the survivors to rebuild their lives, the Guatemalan Congress approved Decree 16-2018 granting them each a lifetime pension. Survivors were to receive monthly payments of five thousand Quetzals (about £520) for the first three years and the equivalent of a minimum salary for the rest of their lives.  

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B. is one of the three survivors who has not received her pension over the last year. In 2020 she was a teen-mum to two children and was also a student. She had just finished basic level-three education (middle school education) and she dreamed of becoming a lawyer. However, since 22 April 2021 she has been in and out of prison. 

The activist Vianney Hernández, mother of Hashly Rodríguez, one of the girls who died in the orphanage blaze, tells us that B. frequently supported them at demonstrations and in their other efforts to seek justice for the orphanage fire. But, in 2021, she stopped coming to join them. 

An SBS report shows that B. received her last pension payment in January 2021. The same report details that she used the money from this last transfer to buy food, nappies, milk for her children, and shoes for herself. It also says that B. had recently enrolled at the Out-of-School Education Centre (Centro de Educación Extraescolar: CEEX) to study for a Baccalaureate in Science and Arts with a Focus on Productivity and Entrepreneurship, and, in addition, was studying Beauty Culture at a private academy on a grant from the UNDERGROUND foundation. 

Two months later, in March 2021, an SBS social worker left a note in their report to the effect that B.’s physical and mental condition had deteriorated recently, stating that the young woman had confided she was having problems. 

Only weeks later, B. left her home and telephoned the SBS to ask for help for her family, saying she had received death threats. As the SBS had no information concerning her whereabouts, they put out an institutional Alba Keneth missing persons alert (see below). 

In the SBS social worker’s report, (April 2021) it states: ’The young woman called the Unit to tell us she’d changed her telephone number because she’d had two phone calls in which death threats were made. And that was why she’d left her home’. 

On 26 April 2021, the Attorney General’s Office (Procuraduría General de la Nación: PGN) let the SBS pensions department know that B. was in custody and was being held, provisionally, in the Los Gorriones Juvenile Women’s Detention Centre (Centro Juvenil de Privación de Libertad Para Mujeres: CEJUPLIM)). She was accused of having stolen a mobile phone.

After a summary procedure on 29 June 2021, the Juvenile Court (Juzgado de Adolescentes en Conflicto con la Ley Penal: JACLP) sentenced B. to eight months in a semi-open prison with another year on licence. The Prosecution Authorities alleged she had been seen robbing a woman of her mobile phone in zone one, Guatemala City, accompanied by two men who evaded the National Civil Police (Policia Nacional Civil: PNC).  

The sentencing body, JACLP, state the following regarding events leading up to B.’s detention: ’On 22 April 2021, a woman was walking on eighth Street between fourth and fifth Avenues in zone one while talking on her mobile phone when B. and two unknown males grabbed her from behind and violently took her mobile phone. They ran in order to escape but two PNC agents observed events and initiated a police chase; however, they only managed to detain B.’ 

B. accepted responsibility for her crime and completed her sentence. While she was at the CEJUPLIM, she learned bread-making, cooking, and pastry-making because she wanted to start a business once she got out of prison. In the meantime, B.’s two children stayed in an orphanage, just as B. had once stayed in the Virgen de la Asunción orphanage. 

The team at CEJUPLIM recommended that once she left the detention centre, B. should not return to her old neighbourhood, El Mezquital, so she would be far from the gangs and the areas that presented a risk for B. and her children. B. agreed with this suggestion and looked at renting somewhere new. 

On 9 October 2021, B. celebrated her eighteenth birthday and as an adult, she would be leaving the care of the SBS. Since she was in prison, however, she couldn’t complete the necessary paperwork in Congress to ensure she would be able to receive her pension directly. 

While B. was a minor, the SBS had visited her at the detention centre and before reaching her eighteenth birthday she started the procedure for obtaining her Personal Identification Documents. While she was detained, the money received by the SBS on B.’s behalf was placed in a savings account. We do not know if B. withdrew the funds when she was released from prison.  

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The SBS informed the Guatemalan Congress of B.’s detention so that members could take a decision regarding future payments of her lifelong pension. 

B. finished her prison sentence but while she was on licence she was detained once again, this time as an adult. According to PNC records, she was taken into custody in February 2022 in Amatitlán. A local gang had sent her to recover an extortion debt. In July 2022 there was notification of yet another charge against B. 

Survivor B. could lose her pension due to her prison term. Decree 16-2018 approving her lifelong pension states that the responsible Congress committee can suspend payments, after an evaluation by the Human Rights Commission. In Article 7 of this same decree, a penal sentence is included as a reason for complete withdrawal of the pension. The Congress has confirmed that the responsible committee must make a final decision in this matter, but as of yet, this has not happened.

In September 2021, the SBS began proceedings so that B. could receive her pension, as an adult, directly from Congress. Congress informed the SBS that B. was required to present herself in-person at the congressional financial directorate so that the relevant administrative steps can be completed for B. to be registered in the Integrated Accounting System (Sistema de Contabilidad Integrada SICOIN). Congress has not clarified whether or not B. did present herself. They have justified non-payment of the pension on the fact that Congress members have not yet found a resolution to survivor B.’s case and thus the financial directorate is unable to decide if payments should be made or not. 

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C. was missing for three years, and national and international missing persons’ alerts were issued in an attempt to find her. When she first disappeared, she was underage leading to the issuing of an Alba Keneth alert on 3 October 2019. In the details of this alert, it states that she was reported missing on 27 September 2019, in Santa Cruz del Quiché, when she was 16 years old. 

The Alba Keneth alert system was set up so that when children and adolescents are reported missing the search for them begins immediately. 

Before the date of C.’s eighteenth birthday, the SBS’s Lifelong Personal Pensions Unit (LPPU) reported that her family had had no recent news of the young woman. In the report, dated January 2021, Iris Lima, a social worker in the LPPU wrote: ‘A request was made to the authorities to expedite action to locate her as quickly as possible, since it was felt that too much time had passed without hearing anything.’

On 4 May of the same year, C. reached majority. As part of their follow-up procedure, the LPPU requested that the Attorney General’s office issue an Isabel Claudina alert (a national missing women’s reporting mechanism), and this was done on 6 May 2021.  

On 14 September 2021, the Attorney General’s office deactivated the Isabel Claudina alert issued for C. Through a public information request, Miriam Gómez, a legal assistant with the Unit for Missing Women (Unidad de Mujeres Desaparecidas: UMD), was able to establish that the alert had been deactivated because C. had presented herself at the Special Prosecutor’s Office for Women’s Affairs in Quiché. Here, C. explained that she had voluntarily returned, with her partner, to live with her mother.

While C. was missing, apart from the Alba Keneth and Isabel Claudina alerts, other, international alerts were also issued including the Mexican Amber Alert, Interpol’s Yellow Alert, and the Chiapas Alert

Although C. is no longer missing, until August 2022 she still had not received her pension. When we asked why, the Congress replied: ’The survivor must report here to complete the appropriate paperwork.’.    

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D. has never received her pension. She is one of the survivors who was already over 18 years of age when the Decree was passed in 2018 and payment should have gone into her personal bank account automatically. However, in the documentation provided by Congress, there is no record of any payments ever having been made to this youngster. 

Friends of the girls who died in the orphanage fire have confirmed that they have not seen D. since the fire and know nothing about what has happened to her. 

The Congress has explained that D. did not present herself in order to complete the necessary legal processes to approve payments of her pension entitlement. In response to Ocote’s questions on this matter, Congress gave the following reply: ‘Officials at the SBS have made us aware that since the incident [the orphanage fire], D. was removed to the United States of North America to be treated for the burns she received as a result of said incident’.

From information provided to us, it is not clear whether D.’s removal to the USA was sponsored by the Guatemalan government or through a non-governmental organization. In addition, we have not been able to establish if D. remains in the USA. To date, this young woman has not presented herself at any point to claim her pension. 


Read more about the case and the work of those fighting for the girls’ rights and dignity below and listen to our podcast episode Mourning the 56 in Guatemala: