Latin America and the Caribbean

14 February 1998

The Plight of Children Living on the Streets of Guatemala City
by Chris Kline, Correspondent

Guatemalan street kids face hardships, death squads Guatemalan street kids struggle to survive.... selling bananas...   

...scavaging through garbage...   

... sleeping in doorways...   

...and abusing inhalants 

GUATEMALA CITY, Guatemala (CNN) -- The thousands of street urchins who inhabit Guatemala City do what they can to scrape by -- begging, selling bananas for a few pennies, salvaging what they can from the garbage dump. Some join gangs and turn to crime.

Most of them are homeless, sleeping on sidewalks or by an abandoned train station. To curb their desperation and hunger, many have become inhalant addicts, sniffing industrial solvents that almost certainly cause brain damage.

They call it 'social cleansing'

But these street kids also face another menace -- death squads practicing what is referred to in Guatemala as "social cleansing."

"There are certain groups in society, including security forces, who feel that by torturing, kidnapping and murdering them, they'll teach the others a lesson to leave the street," says Hector Godinez, who heads the legal office at Casa Alianza, one of a handful of children's shelters in the city.

As proof, Godinez keeps a gruesome photo archive, to illustrate the children's often shocking injuries -- and to remember the dead.

Few prosecutions for crimes against children

Although the police still figure in many of the atrocities, Godinez attributes a new wave of violence against street children to private security guards, hired by business owners who see the kids as a menace.

Even the Guatemalan government concedes that police officers and private guards are seldom prosecuted for crimes against children.

"Perhaps the justice system lacks the resources or the investigative capabilities to identify those responsible, find the proof and sentence them," says Carmela Curup of the Guatemalan Office for Juvenile Affairs.

Trying to provide a better future

Police and private security guards have been known to beat up and even kill street children   

The government does not run a single youth shelter in Guatemala. Only Casa Alianza and the small number of other private shelters try to provide a better future for the small number of children they can rescue.

Children arrive at Casa Alianza filthy and suffering from disease. They are cured of infections, and their wounds are tended. Often malnourished, they are fed back to health.

In a society where many poor people never break the bonds of poverty, the street children of Guatemala City are perhaps the most forgotten of all.

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