The girls, who had broken no laws and posed no threat to society, were victims even before the fire. As survivors of sexual abuse, violence or abandonment — often at the hands of their own families — the government had assigned them to the institution for their own safety. In theory, the world outside posed the greatest threat to them.

“These are girls who had been abused, sometimes raped, by members of their own family,” said Norma Cruz, the director of Survivors, a group representing the families of nearly two dozen victims. “These girls were placed there for their protection.”

The Virgin de Asuncion Hogar Seguro was created for children with nowhere else to go. Opened in 2010, it housed boys and girls from infancy to 17 in a gated facility on the edges of the capital, Guatemala City.

Escape had long been a theme of the home. Between September and November of 2016 alone, more than 90 children ran away, according to prosecutors who have charged more than a dozen officials in connection with the fire.

Local journalists had recounted harrowing reports of abuse inside the home as far back as 2013 — rotten food, filthy bedsheets that caused skin diseases, violent orderlies.

Then, in February of 2017, another batch of children began planning their own escape.

It began on Valentine’s Day, when the children were allowed to mingle. Scores of boys and girls agreed on a day to flee, but word of the plot began to leak. Around lunchtime on March 7, two girls faked a fight in the cafeteria, drawing the orderlies into the fracas.

The others ran.

Nearly 100 in all, they scaled the walls of the outer building and jumped into a ravine, a few injuring themselves in the fall. They scattered across a creek, taking off in different directions.



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