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Guatemala arrests three officials in deadly youth shelter fire

Candles are lit during a 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, Guatemala, on March 11, 2017.

SAUL MARTINEZ/REUTERS

Guatemalan authorities arrested three former child welfare officials Monday who were responsible for overseeing a youth shelter where 40 girls died from a fire.

Prosecutor's spokeswoman Julia Barrera confirmed the detentions of Social Welfare Secretary Carlos Rodas, Deputy Secretary Anahi Keller and shelter director Santos Torres on suspicion of homicide, mistreatment of minors and failure to fulfil duty.

Rodas lawyer Juan Alberto Guevara said they were evaluating his legal situation.

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"As the constitution says, he is innocent until proven otherwise," Guevara said. "I have known him for a long time and he is a real professional."

Earlier in the day President Jimmy Morales said he had fired the chain of command at the country's child welfare agency, but did not specify how many employees were dismissed.

Rodas resigned Saturday, Torres was dismissed the day of the fire and Keller was let go Monday.

Morales also said his government has asked the FBI to help in the investigation of Wednesday's disaster.

Guatemala's human rights prosecutor said the dismissals should have come the same day as the fire. Jorge de Leon said his agency had asked a judge to review conditions at the shelter before the fire, but the request was denied.

Authorities have said the fire that swept through parts of the institution began when mattresses were set ablaze during a protest by residents protesting conditions at the overcrowded youth shelter. Some of the victims had escaped earlier, fleeing poor food and mistreatment, but were caught and confined at the facility.

De Leon said last week that younger children fled the shelter because they were being abused by older residents.

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"According to what they say, the bigger kids have control and they attack them constantly," de Leon said. "They also complain that food is scarce and of poor quality."

In 2013, a 14-year-old girl was strangled by another resident at the shelter, investigators said.

Prosecutors say they are also investigating whether children were trafficked through the home for prostitution.

Four of the burn victims were flown to the Shriners Hospital for Children in Galveston, Texas, on Saturday. Morales' office said the Shriners Hospitals had arranged for their transfer.

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