At least 19 are dead after fire at Guatemala children's shelter

Although the center only had capacity for 500 children, it's been said to house as many as 800 at the time of the fire.

The country has entered a three-day period of national mourning.

But local media say the shelter was also functioning as a juvenile detention centre, to which judges were sending adolescents involved in criminal cases.

Grieving relatives - who have gathered outside the home waiting for information about their children - said abuse was common at the centre and that younger children tried to flee from older residents who "regularly attack" them.

"The situation is very dramatic", said Norma Cruz, a children's advocate in Guatemala who attended the vigil. "This should never have happened".

SAN JOSE PINULA, Guatemala-Hospital officials said the death toll in a fire at a youth shelter in Guatemala rose to 31 after several girls died overnight of severe burns.

On Tuesday, police intervened after a riot broke out at the facility, the BBC reported.

Some 40 residents escaped but were recaptured and isolated, Ramos said.

What is the centre like?

A teenager set fire to a mattress in the overcrowded rehabilitation center Hogar Seguro Virgen de la Asunción in San José Pinula, Guatemala.

Guatemalan media reported that more than 500 people were crammed into the shelter created to house 400.

Distraught relatives said abuse was common at the centre, which is run by the Ministry for Social Welfare.

Government spokesperson Heinz Heimann condemned the open living arrangements at the shelter.

Andrea Palomo told reporters in tears that she had brought her 15-year-old son to the home to discipline him. But he told her he was mistreated and complained that gang members there tattooed the children, she said. Some parents have praised it. We extend our deepest sympathies to the families of the victims and to the people of Guatemala.

It can be grim.

Overcrowding is a common problem in public institutions in Guatemala, including in particular prisons.

President Jimmy Morales said on national television that he had ordered the dismissal of the shelter's director.

Mayra Veliz, secretary general of the attorney general's office, pledged a transparent investigation into the cause of the blaze.

  • Joanne Flowers