The situation of children and adolescents in Guatemala is critical. An example of this are the events that took place on March 7 and 8, 2017, in the so-called Virgen de la Asunción “Safe” Home (HSVA), where 41 girls died and 15 were seriously injured. The HSVA was imagined as a state center for the protection of underage victims of violence, abandonment and child abuse and housed between 600 and 800 children with a diversity of profiles and needs. We interviewed Leonel Dubón, Executive Director of "The Children's Refuge", an organisation dedicated to defending children's rights. This organization cares for child and adolescent victims of sexual violence, exploitation and trafficking. Dubón, who has been working in this area for 30 years, was selected as "International Trafficking in Persons Hero" by the US State Department in 2011, for his continued struggle to prevent human trafficking.

On March 7, 2017, adolescents from the HSVA1 held a protest against the poor living conditions they were subjected to at the Home, as well as the mistreatment they had repeatedly suffered. Approximately 100 adolescents fled the home. Most were captured later that evening by the police, who took them back to the HSVA. At dawn on March 8, 46 boys were moved to an auditorium (a relatively spacious room). However, 56 girls were moved to a room with standing capacity for only 26 people, without a bathroom nor access to water. Both spaces were closed with padlock and guarded by the National Civil Police (PNC). One witness stated that "the girls shouted that they were dirty, that they were cold, that they wanted to wash and change. No staff member from the HSVA approached them about these needs.” Hours later a fire broke out in the room where the girls had been locked in, allegedly started by one of the girls as a way to get the attention of the authorities so they would be let out. In this regard, one of the survivors said: "We called for help, but they ignored us.” According to the investigation of the Public Prosecutor's Office (MP), the authorities present at the HSVA took 9 minutes to open the door. Several testimonies indicate that the volunteer firemen had to wait 40 minutes to be allowed to enter the Home. 41 girls died in the fire, 19 in the HSVA facilities and 22 in hospital.

According to the report of the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), the events of March 2017 at the HSVA, not only demonstrated negligence in terms of child protection but constituted a human rights violation. In the months and years leading up to the fire, the residents from the HSVA filed dozens of complaints, with public institutions, relating to violence, abuse, trafficking in persons and sexual exploitation. These reports received no response. Following the tragedy the MP accused the sub-secretary for Social Welfare of manslaughter, mistreatment of minors, abuse of authority and breach of duties. One of the complainant organizations that defends the families of the girls, Women Transforming the World (MTM), emphasized that the events of March 7 and 8 should be framed within the context of continuous sexual violence and that they must be analyzed and examined from a gender perspective.

What does the HSVA tragedy mean for children's rights?

We are talking about a tragedy that is not only limited to the events of March 8, 2017, but which began with the opening of the HSVA. Human rights violations began to occur from the moment it opened. Guatemala opened a macro-institution: a center that sought to house more than a thousand children and adolescents in one single location, without a specific model of care and totally violating their right to a family. Therefore, crises began to arise out of the poor relationship between the children and staff, who did not have the correct skills to care for them.

When the Patriotic Party (PP) assumed power (2012-2015), the living conditions of the children at the home begin to change. The concept of a 'solidarity home'2 was changed to 'safe home' and a policy of zero tolerance towards the children's was applied. Children who were in the home for their protection were mixed with minors who were in conflict with the law. Paradoxically, the home was anything but safe, it was no longer a question of respect for human rights, rather we saw the application of military style discipline.

Once the PP's term ended, the deterioration of the conditions at the home began to intensify, because the new government had no model to apply. What you had was a center that houses approximately a thousand minors, without a methodology or daily routines of therapeutic care for the girls who were arriving with traumas as a result of the different types of violence they had experienced.

The events of March 8 were not the first time there had been incidents at the home, in fact, there had been many others. We had begun to notice that there were serious problems throughout the child protection system. For that reason, I would say that this is a prolonged tragedy, where children suffered a lot, not only the 41 girls who died in the fire, nor the more than 550 who survived, it is a tragedy that has continued and is the result of a series of systematic errors of the part of the different institutions. It is true that the Law for Integrated Protection, delineates the structure of the system, how it should work and the responsibilities of each institutions that forms part of the system, but in practice it is not functional.

The Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) was approved in 1989 and Guatemala ratified it in 1990. However, the national protection system is not working.

Would you say that these events helped to raised awareness about the failures of the protection system?

I believe that as a result of these events there is more knowledge about what was happening in the "Safe" Home, there is more clarity about the need to transform the childcare and protection system. I think there have been some important changes, however fundamental changes to the system have not occurred. There is still a lack of a specialized care model. We find strains of thought within the system that are often contrary to a human rights based approach. I believe that institutions need to be redefined, to be transformed completely, but I doubt very much that this could happen under the current institutional model. I believe that these institutions should disappear and the current institutional framework should be transformed, that's why we talk about the transformation of the protection system. We believe that childhood in the country deserves a deeper transformation. A transformation that would imply the creation of institutions with new dynamics of care, grounded in a human rights based approach, from both staff and directors of these institutions.

Is there a comprehensive plan to care for the survivors of the tragedy and repair them for the damage, as well as their families and the families of the deceased?

We, at the Children's Refuge, accompany 12 of the 15 survivors. Two other girls have been accompanied by the Alliance Association and one girl is still in the United States. The 12 girls we accompanied were received on their return from hospital in the United States and we accompanied them in the Refuge's centers until they were gradually able to reintegrate into their family environments. We are continuing to provide follow up care for these girls. It must be said that the Secretary for Social Welfare set up a special unit accompany these cases. We developed an initial proposal that was subsequently approved, with a legislative decree which established March 8 as the National Day of the Tragedy and of Non-Repetition of Violence, but the most important thing was that we secured a living allowance for the girls. Of the 12 girls we continue to accompany, 10 are doing well, but one of them has been missing for more than seven months and we haven't been able to find her. It is a very complex situation, because, although there are resources for available for the accompaniment and they have received all the necessary medical attention, the physical rehabilitation has been difficult and the trauma caused by this tragedy is very deep. The girls have had moments of regression, when they have remembered that painful moment. I think that as a society in general we are not yet conscious of the impact that the tragedy had on the lives of these girls. I believe that the State does not see them as victims, but as problematic girls, and any action that has been done "in their favor" has been more a response to external pressures. The more than 550 surviving children were granted precautionary measures from the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (CIDH), so there are mechanisms to pressure the State to provide accompaniment.

Very little has been said about the 500 boys and girls who were also living at the facilities. What happened to them?

According to data from the Human Rights Ombudsman's Office (PDH), 11 children have died, in diverse circumstances, since the tragedy. Some have been killed in the streets. The State must be held accountable for these deaths and clarify the circumstances in which they occurred. Many of the family reintegrations that occurred following the tragedy were not well planned. There were cases of girls who were returned to the same fathers who had raped them. The perception is that the State simply wanted to get rid of the children and this was not carried out in an organized manner. Many of the children were distributed between other institutions but two or three days later they were looking to relocate them again because the institutions where they had been taken did not meet the standards necessary to adequately care for them.

Would you say that the institutionalization of children, and the events that occurred in HSVA, are related to the discrimination suffered by children?

I think there is discrimination against children, especially because the majority of children who are institutionalized are poor, they come from marginalised areas of the city that do not have access to services. As a result they suffer a permanent violation of their human rights and the State does not guarantee them dignified living conditions. But there is something much more serious than this. Many of these children, for a long time had been tortured inside the center, many of girls were beaten and injured by the staff, they received punishments as if they were in a concentration camp. We have many complaints from before the tragedy of March 8. However, these acts have never been investigated in depth. That is why we insist that aside from the tragedy, there have been many cases of torture, imprisonment, physical punishment and psychological violence, which have never been investigated, and we are not sure whether these kinds of practices have been eradicated in the smaller state homes or in private homes.

Could it be said that the events that occurred in the HSVA should be framed within a generalized context of gender based violence, as one of the complainants has stated?

Absolutely. And I can say this because I had the privilege of talking with many of the girls who died, before the tragedy occurred. I had meetings with them, because the crisis had been a long time coming , they had already protested the way they were being treated. In fact, in November 2016, I invited, a representative of the Children's Rights Committee, along with other organizations to visit the HSVA. This person collected a lot of information that was passed on to the State, but he received no response. I believe that issues of gender based violence, such as torture, are issues that may be difficult to to demonstrate legally, however, given my close relationship to the girls, and because of the knowledge I have human rights, it was it was plain that atrocities were being committed.

What changes would be the necessary to provide integrated protection for the children of Guatemala and so guarantee the non-repetition of these incidents?

I think it is urgent to approve the 5285 decree, an initiative which seeks to transform the protection system. This initiative envisages three scenarios. The first is the creation of a central authority that would be responsible for generating the necessary public policies for the integrated protection of children and would mean that children's concerns are present in the Government and State's main agenda. The second and third steps include the creation of a social protection council and a special protection institute that would perform all the functions of protection and representation. The council focus on community level work, aiming to keep children in their own communities, and keep them out of the special protection system as far as possible. Without a transformation of the system we are lost, that things are going to go from bad to worse. If you ask me to compare the situation of children's rights in 2017, when the tragedy occurred, with today's situation, I would say things are much more serious today. Children continue to die for a multitude of reasons, they have few expectations from life in this country. That is why thousands of children have left Guatemala or are becoming involved in criminal activities, it has to do with the lack of opportunities. We need comprehensive protection processes and a system that guarantees basic living conditions.

Do you consider the girls who protested on March 7 to have been defending their rights?

For me they were defending their rights and the rights of other girls. I believe that in many cases neither the country, nor society, nor organizations, have given children their own space. In fact, we have many girls who participate in the Refuge's processes. When they leave shelter and protection programs they become leaders in their own communities, they are defending rights. So for me the girls who protested on March 8, 2017, and much earlier, are definitely defenders of their own rights. The issue is that the country continues to see girls as objects, and not as subjects of rights. We still believe that girls are not capable of identifying their needs or raising demands. So for me they continue to be, and will continue to be, defenders of their own rights and human rights defenders. I believe that Guatemala is at a very important political crossroads and within this political crisis transcendental issues such as this have, unfortunately, become invisible.

1This institution comes under the responsibility of the Presidential Secretary for Social-Welfare.

2This was the name given to the facility in the government of the National Union of Hope (UNE, Unión Nacional de la Esperanza, 2008-2011).