Five friends were watching the horror on the news from their homes on March 8. A shelter was going up in flames with girls inside. Stephany Arreaga picked up the phone and called her mom. “Are you seeing this?” she asked. “What can we do?”
“Let’s go down there,” Mayra Jimenez suggested. And so, Arreaga and Jimenez gathered their friends—Maria del Carmen Peña, Hane Herrera and Kimy De León—and went to help.
Until this moment, these women weren’t really activists: They were a graphic designer, a journalist, a sociologist, a dentist and a photographer making the nearly hour-long drive to Hogar Seguro Virgen de la Asunción, just outside Guatemala City.
By the time they arrived, emergency workers were bringing out survivors and bodies.
The women started to help by meeting the families as they arrived and going with them to the hospital or to the morgue. “I knew, at that moment, that people were suffering and that I could be useful, somehow, for those families,” Jimenez told Ms. “But in relation to the girls, it was a tremendous feeling of pain and love; it was wanting to be with them in their final moments, even knowing that they were dying one by one.”
By the time it was all over, 41 girls were dead, and 15 were severely burned.
The girls were in shelter because they had been reported missing at some point—running away from abuse, kidnapped, trafficked. They were not criminals. They were there to be protected as the government sorted out a safe space for them to go. But at the shelter, they were mistreated. They were physically and sexually abused, medicated against their will, forced to undergo abortions and fed spoiled food. Some were even trafficked again.
Things weren’t much better at the boys shelter. The children tried to escape, but the national police were waiting. Rather than help these vulnerable children, Guatemala’s President Jimmy Morales and other government officials abdicated responsibility and turned them over to the police. The boys were locked in an auditorium; the girls in a small 22’-by-23’ room with a few mattresses but no blankets.
When the girls begged to be allowed to go to the bathroom, the police refused. They built a makeshift bathroom using the mattresses that had been left on the floor to create some small place of privacy. Quickly, however, the area overflowed, and the stench became unbearable. Again, the girls begged to be released. They refused the food the police brought because they suspected their food at the shelter had been drugged to make them compliant for abuse and trafficking.
Finally, with no other apparent options, officials think some of the girls moved a mattress near a window and set it on fire, believing the police would respond to the smoke and let them out. Instead, the police kept them locked in the room as it burned.
As the five friends accompanied the families of the victims through the medical and legal processes, they quickly realized that the Guatemalan government was taking little responsibility for assisting the survivors or the families or seeking justice by identifying and prosecuting perpetrators—and that they needed a longer-term strategy to address the atrocities of the fire and its aftermath.
They founded Ocho Tijax, an organization to accompany families, support survivors and seek justice—a “collective of love that is born in the midst of pain.”
“Love is the purest emotion, and the one that has sustained me for more than six months working alongside these families and girls,” Arreaga told Ms. “At the moment of the tragedy, my first instinct was that of providing protection, as a woman and a mother. Offering my solidarity from afar, to the families and the survivors, was not going to be enough. There was so much need and zero government support. This is still the case today.”
Ocho Tijax currently coordinates with lawyers from the Human Rights Law Firm to provide legal aid for four survivors and their families, as well as for the families of eight victims of the fire. They provide counseling for the families of these 12 girls and facilitate counseling and physical and emotional healing therapy for the four survivors in coordination with “Camino de Sol” and a psychologist from the Human Rights Law Firm. They also create media campaigns to dignify the memory and lives of the 56 victims with the assistance of Prensa Comunitaria.
As the cases move through Guatemala’s legal system, they offer support and accompaniment during the hearings and trials of the Hogar Seguro case, provide financial aid to cover transportation and other costs for the families, facilitate testimonies to serve as evidence for the Public Prosecutor’s office and help the survivors and family members understand and navigate the complexities of the legal case and their search for justice.
“These women are true heroes,” Rob Mercatante, co-director of the Human Rights Defenders Project in Guatemala, an organization that provides support for human rights activists, said of Ocho Tijax. “When they became aware of the fire, instead of posting about it on social media, they went to the scene of the tragedy. They were present with the grieving families during moments of unimaginable loss and suffering. They provided loving support—to these complete strangers—in the hospitals, the morgues, and the funeral parlors. But it didn’t end there. These courageous women continue to stand in solidarity with the young girls who survived the massacre and the families of those who didn’t make it out alive.”
One of the survivors, Cynthia, was only 14 years old at the time of the fire. Over 60 percent of her body was burned. She was in a coma for months, and she had to undergo multiple surgeries to address the physical damage from the fire. Now, she hopes for the quinceañera celebration many Latin American girls experience to mark their coming of age—and since her family can’t afford the traditional party, the women of Ocho Tijax are raising funds for her celebration.
Ocho Tijax is still devoted to the legal battles ahead. “Their next challenge is to bring to justice those government officials responsible for this horrific crime,” Mercatante said. “This is a very dangerous endeavor, as seeking truth and justice in Guatemala is a high-risk activity… especially when those implicated are high-ranking government officials, including the president of the country.”
Mercatante, however, has faith. “The women of Ocho Tijax,” he declared, “are the very definition of selfless courage.”
Susan M. Shaw, Ph.D., is a Professor of Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies at Oregon State University.