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  • Friends and family attend the funeral of a victim of the fire at the Virgen de Asuncion children shelter, at the cemetery in Guatemala City.

    Friends and family attend the funeral of a victim of the fire at the Virgen de Asuncion children shelter, at the cemetery in Guatemala City. | Photo: Reuters

Published 14 March 2017

Guatemala's government has acknowledged that state negligence played a role in the fire that left 40 girls dead.

Guatemala has arrested three former government employees in connection with a fire that killed 40 girls at the shelter for abused teens as part of an ongoing investigation that has raised questions about whether the victims had been locked inside at the time of the blaze.

Latin America Demands Justice for Girls Killed in Guatemala Fire

The attorney general's office confirmed the arrest of former Social Welfare Secretary Carlos Rodas, former Deputy Secretary Anahi Keller and the former director of the Virgen de la Asuncion shelter where the deadly fire broke out, Santos Torres.

Julia Barrera, the spokeswoman for the prosecution, confirmed the suspects were accused of wrongful death, mistreatment of minors and negligence. Barrera added that a Guatemalan judge had also banned several workers from the shelter from leaving the country.

The Guatemalan government previously dismissed two of the three officials after an announcement by President Jimmy Morales in a news conference that his administration had decided to "remove the line of command" in charge of the shelter. Torres was let go the day of the fire, Keller was fired Monday and Rodas stepped down on Saturday.

The announcement came five days after the fire, which engulfed the shelter on International Women's Day on March 8.

Since 2015, human rights organizations in Guatemala have raised alarm over alleged abuses at the shelter, including sexual, physical and psychological abuse, and even human trafficking and prostitution inside this shelter.

Jorge de Leon, a human rights attorney, said the president's decision came late, as he says it should have taken place on the same day of the fire. "Here the state is responsible for the deaths of the girls, because it couldn't protect their lives," said de Leon.

The Organization of American States, through the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, announced it had requested information from the Guatemala government on the status of the shelter in January, and demanded to know the measures taken to protect the youths' lives and ensure access to medical services, but that the organization didn't receive any response from Guatemalan officials.

Guatemala President Admits State Responsibility in Shelter Fire

According to witnesses, the incident began last Tuesday when dozens of children attempted to flee the Virgen de la Asuncion shelter in San Jose Pinula, southeast of the country's capital. A fire broke out the next morning in a room where they hade been recaptured and locked up.

A total of 40 girls died, with 19 deaths at the shelter and 21 more in different hospitals, according to the Ministry of Health. So far, seven girls who were severely burned have been transferred to the U.S. for medical treatment.

Meanwhile, protests in Guatemala City continue to demand justice for the girls.

"The girls were not quiet, and they didn't like that, the girls defended their rights and the state burned them," chanted some of the thousands of protesters in who gathered Monday night outside the Guatemala City cathedral, as President Morales attended mass inside.

Morales, who has been heavily criticized, also announced he sought support from the U.S. for the investigation and requested the assistance of the FBI.

"What I want is justice and punishment for the death of my daughter," said Bernardo Perez, father of 14-year-old Ana Roselia Perez who died in the fire.

WATCH: The Abuse Shelter Behind the Deaths of 37 Girls

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