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  • People protest to demand justice for the victims of a fire at the Virgen de Asuncion children

    People protest to demand justice for the victims of a fire at the Virgen de Asuncion children's shelter, in front of the National Palace in Guatemala City. | Photo: Reuters

The death toll from the fire in a government-run shelter for abused teens has now risen to at least 40.

The fire at a shelter in Guatemala has sparked international outrage and protests across Latin America to demand justice for the incident that has now left 40 dead and at least a dozen injured as details emerge suggesting that the victims may not have been able to escape the blaze because they were locked in.

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The Virgen de Asuncion shelter for abused teens up to 18 years old was run by the Ministry of Social Welfare and, according to local media, had received complaints in the past over overcrowded living conditions and other abuses. Despite its capacity to hold only 500, the shelter reportedly housed more than 800 children.

In Guatemala City, demonstrators rallied in front of the National Palace Saturday to demand an investigation into the fire. Protesters slammed the tragedy as a state femicide, holding signs with slogans such as "They didn't deserve to die this way."

One protester argued in an interview with Ruptly that the fire had not been an accident, but a state plan to silence those who could reveal the sexual abuses that allegedly occurred inside the shelter.

At the rallies, thousands of Guatemalans also continued to demand the resignation of President Jimmy Morales and Vice President Jafeth Cabrera, pointing to the fire as the latest show of government incompetence.

Those demanding justice for the 40 victims of the blaze have slammed the state's negligence and neoliberal policies underlying the shortage of social support systems that forces shelters like the Virgen de Asuncion to soar over capacity. President Morales acknowledged the state's responsibility in the fire and said they were not paying attention to the social needs of the abused children.

Meanwhile, cries for justice have also spread to other countries in the region.

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Mexican citizens gathered Saturday at the Guatemalan Embassy in Mexico City to pressure the Central American country to investigate and prosecute the suspected arson attack, carrying with signs saying, "Let's together feel the grief, anger and pain."

In Ecuador, social groups organized a vigil Sunday in front of the Guatemalan Embassy in Quito to demand justice. The organizers asked participants to bring placards with messages such as, "It wasn't the fire, it was the state," as well as take flowers and candles to place in memory of the children and youth killed.

In the wake of the tragedy, Cuba’s famous medical brigade, Pope Francis and international organizations like Unicef and United Nations have expressed solidarity with Guatemalan society and the relatives of those who died in the fire.

Authorities are investigating whether or not the girls had been locked in a small room — as survivors and witnesses have claimed — for trying to escape on the eve of International Women's Day.

So far, at least 72 children have been relocated to other temporary shelters.

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