Thu Mar 9, 2017 7:54AM
A handout picture released by the Guatemalan Volunteer Firefighters shows three firefighters carrying the corpse of one of the 21 victims of a fire at a children’s shelter Virgen de la Asuncion facility, in San Jose Pinula, east of Guatemala City, Guatemala, March 8, 2017. (Via AFP)
A handout picture released by the Guatemalan Volunteer Firefighters shows three firefighters carrying the corpse of one of the 21 victims of a fire at a children’s shelter Virgen de la Asuncion facility, in San Jose Pinula, east of Guatemala City, Guatemala, March 8, 2017. (Via AFP)
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At least 21 underage girls have lost their lives and more than 40 others sustained injuries in an overnight fire that broke out in an overcrowded shelter for children and adolescents in Guatemala, officials say.

The incident occurred in the government-run Virgen de la Asuncion (Virgin of the Assumption), located in the Las Anonas area of San José Pinula, some 25 kilometers southwest of the capital, Guatemala City in the early hours of Wednesday.

It occurred shortly after some of the residents set fire to sleeping mats in the center, apparently in an act of protest over mistreatment and the poor conditions there.

Two of the shelter’s seven buildings caught fire as a result.

According to Nery Ramos, the head of Guatemala’s national police, over 50 male occupants, with alleged juvenile delinquency records, had been isolated by authorities at the center for having earlier incited a riot and having attempted an escape on Tuesday night.

He added that police were investigating whether the two events were linked.

The sanctuary, run by the Ministry for Social Welfare, is home to children and teenagers up to 18 years old who are victims of trafficking, abuse, and abandonment, as well as youths who completed sentences at youth detention centers but had nowhere else to go. Some of them had been removed from their families and guardians by the authorities for their own safety, but they reportedly found little respite at the state home.

Relatives cry outside the children’s shelter Virgen de la Asuncion, in San Jose Pinula, east of Guatemala City, Guatemala, March 8, 2017. A fire at the facility earlier killed at least 21 people. (Photo by AFP)

Complaints about abuse and living conditions at the overcrowded center have been frequent, and according to the distraught relatives of the residents, abuse was common at the center.

“What happened is extremely serious, and even more so for the fact that it could have been avoided. This should never have happened,” said Anabella Morfin, Guatemala’s solicitor general, speaking at a news conference in the wake of the incident on Wednesday.

The shelter was supposed to be home to at most 500 children and adolescents but nearly 800 people had been crammed into the aging structure at the time of the incident.

Police stand guard as forensic personnel work at the children’s shelter Virgen de la Asuncion after a fire at the facility that killed at least 21 people, in San Jose Pinula, east of Guatemala City, Guatemala, March 8, 2017. (Photo by AFP)

Presidential spokesman Heinz Heimann lamented the incident, saying, “It shouldn’t be possible that girls who simply were suffering, that didn’t have any problems with the law, are mixed with young people who have committed crimes. This can’t be allowed to continue.”

President Jimmy Morales’ office announced there would be three days of mourning over the deaths, which coincided with the International Women’s Day.