Death Squads, Police Target Brazil’s Street Children
RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil (AP) _ Death squads hired to rid the slums of crime are killing growing numbers of street children, often with the help of police, human rights activists say.
Officials who monitor child abuse say hundreds of deprived, destitute minors are murdered every year in Brazil.
Police illegally arrest, torture and rape street children, the advocacy group Amnesty International said in a report.
Death squads, generally made up of off-duty or retired policemen fed up with impotent courts and turnstile justice, have operated in Brazil since the 1960s, when they killed known or suspected criminals and opponents of the military regime.
Human rights advocates are alarmed by the surge in killings of young people, particularly in Sao Paulo, Rio and Recife.
″The violence has never been this bad,″ said Rodrigo Sousa Filho, coordinator of the National Street Children’s Movement in Rio de Janeiro state. ″Kids are being gunned down without question, as if they were wild dogs.″
Grinding poverty, family disintegration and police corruption contribute to the increasing brutality during Brazil’s worst economic crisis.
Four-digit inflation, a foreign debt of $114 billion and cuts in social spending have left the educational and child welfare systems ″functioning as revolving doors,″ Sousa Filho said.
A study by the U.N. Children’s Fund released in March said half the 60 million children in Brazil suffer abject poverty and about 12 million fend for themselves on the streets, up from 5 million in 1985.
Children as young as 5 are on the street, said Pedro Menezes, spokesman for the Central Foundation for Infants and Adolescents, a child welfare agency.
Poorly equipped, low-security juvenile detention centers release many children for lack of room, and others run away.
Street kids become beggars or petty thieves to survive, Menezes said, ″but they soon learn they can triple their parents’ monthly salary by running drugs or joining organized crime groups.″
Since no one under 18 can be tried in Brazil, the children become useful to crime bosses. Menezes said teen-agers help in kidnappings, bank robberies and cocaine deals.
Store owners pay death squads to wipe out criminals of all ages in their areas.
Children who are petty thieves are slain for as little as $40 each, but killing a youth who runs drugs or leads a slum gang can cost up to $500, a policeman said, on condition of anonymity.
Racial prejudice also comes into it. A study by the Brazilian Institute of Social and Economic Analysis said 82 percent of street kids murdered by death squads were black or of mixed race.
″If a street kid is white, he’s seen as cute and is pitied, but a black child is immediately thought to be a thief, a drug runner or a gang leader,″ said Paulo Rios of the Brazilian League for the Defense of Human Rights.
Several studies show violence against minors is spreading across this huge nation of 150 million people.
One by the Health Ministry revealed an increase in killings of young people in Sao Paulo from 280 in 1980 to 1,880 in 1989. In Rio, violent deaths of young people rose from 287 in 1983 to 630 in 1989.
Figures compiled by the National Movement for Street Boys and Girls, which counsels abandoned children, indicate 333 street kids were killed by death squads last year in Recife, Sao Paulo and Rio.
Gilberto Dimenstein, an investigative reporter from Sao Paulo who interviewed 300 street children in six cities, estimates the death toll among them in all of Brazil is at least one a day.
In his book ″The War of the Children,″ Dimenstein says street children often are killed for witnessing crimes committed by mobsters or police in violent neighborhoods. The practice is called ″burning the files.″
Dimenstein writes of finding a youth slumped on a street corner in Recife, a northeastern city, and asking the boy if he is sick.
The response: ″No. I took a bullet in my leg. The bullet is still in there.″
″Why don’t you go to the hospital?″
″I am afraid the police will find me.″
Police routinely torture street kids for information on crime gangs and extort money from them as the price of leaving them alone, said Dr. Maria Alda, coordinator of the National Movement for Street Boys and Girls in Sao Paulo.
Police officials deny the charges.
″More minors are committing felonies than ever before, ″ said Lt. Eide Trindade, director of Rio’s task force on organized crime. ″If they are to engage in crimes such as armed robbery, they must be treated by the same standards as adults. To stop the crime, there is no other way.″
In most cases involving torture or death, no one is arrested, Alda said. Convictions of death squad members are next to impossible because witnesses are threatened and sometimes killed.
″Everyone in these poor areas knows who’s pulling the trigger,″ Alda said, ″but no one, not even the kids, says anything, out of sheer terror.″
Last year, state troopers routinely picked up children who begged around Rio’s tourist beaches and dumped them in the slums of the distant North Zone.
Liborni Siqueira, one of only two juvenile court judges in this city of 5.5 million, ordered military police in April to round up street kids and put them in detention centers.
Television news showed scantily clad, crying children huddled in cramped, filthy cells. The order was withdrawn because of outcries from politicians and human rights groups.
Human rights activists denounced several incidents in which children as young as 10 were put into overcrowded cells with hardened adult criminals.
Sousa Filho said prison guards routinely beat children with clubs, burn their sex organs with cigarettes and dunk their heads in toilets as punishment.
A 12-year-old girl accused of killing a neighbor was locked in a dark, 5- by-4-foot cell, alone and naked, for three days without food, he said, and added:
″Just when I think I’ve come across the most barbaric case of all, another one even more disgusting comes along.″