Guatemala Prosecutors Call for Stripping President of Immunity

Lifting the president’s immunity would open him up to an investigation for alleged torture, extrajudicial killing and other crimes linked to the shelter fire that killed 41 girls.
An activist holds a sign that reads " We are missing 43 girls. Justice" during a protest outside of Guatemala
An activist holds a sign that reads ” We are missing 43 girls. Justice” during a protest outside of Guatemala’s embassy in Managua.

The Guatemalan prosecutor’s office has called for the removal of President Jimmy Morales’ political immunity that has shielded him from facing an investigation over the deaths of 41 girls who died in a fire at a state-run shelter for abused teens.

The petition was filed Monday with the Supreme Court, which will deliberate on whether or not to lift the president’s immunity and open him up to investigations on his responsibility for the deadly fire.

The call for Morales to be stripped of immunity originated from opposition lawmakers Sandra Moran and Locadio Juracan. The lawmakers at the forefront of the proposal said that they considered Morales liable for action or inaction as he was the acting superior over all officials involved and argued that he should be investigated for allegations of torture, extrajudicial execution, abuse of authority and breach of duty.

A fire broke out in the state-run Virgen of Asuncion shelter for abused teens on March 8, which led to the deaths of 41 girls and adolescents who resided there. The fire revealed the troubling history of the “safe house,” which had been accused of severe overcrowding with 700 adolescents residing in the shelter for minors with only a legal capacity of 400. The victims had been locked into a room, preventing their escape during the blaze.

Shortly after news of the fire, Morales stated publicly that the state had a role in the tragedy. Opposition lawmakers and now public prosecutors are looking to take the president on his word by demnding a formal investigation into his own alleged responsibility as head of state.

“As part of our complaint, we are also requesting the public prosecutor’s office investigate the executive’s line of command and, likewise, to deduce responsibility for the tragic death of these young Guatemalan girls,” stated lawmaker Leocadio Juracan.

Over the years, state officials have turned a blind eye on criminal allegations in the home, continuing to send adolescents to the home despite calls for its closure from courts. Allegations of sexual and physical abuse, as well as drugging and sex trafficking recruitment, had also been reported without response from authorities.

In 2013, the attorney general’s office declared the home a center for “human rights violations” rather than a refuge for victims. In 2015, the office registered the neglect of administrators towards the children and in 2016 called on outside help, asking the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights to consider the case.

The Human Rights Ombudsman also denounced the home as an example of the state’s failed system, stating that the juvenile institute was meant to be a temporary solution. In March, the organization filed a complaint to investigate sex trafficking allegations in the shelter.

“In the face of the murder of the 41 girls at the safe house, on March 14 lawmaker Juracan and I filed a criminal complaint against President Jimmy Morales for abuse of authority, extrajudicial execution, torture and breach of duties,” lawmaker Sandra Moran wrote on her Facebook page Monday. “Today the (prosecutor’s office) gives course to the procedure. The demand for justice is ratified.”

The death of 41 girls in the fire sparked national and international outrage, with activists slamming the fatal incident as a femicide at the hands of the state to highlight the role of government negligence in the tragedy.