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Guatemala's street children speak out

Published Oct. 1, 2005

This afternoon a group of destitute Guatemalan street children will march on the country's judicial headquarters to seek justice for one of their own.

Seven years ago today, Nahaman Carmona Lopez, a 13-year-old street child, was kicked to death by uniformed Guatemalan police officers.

Win or lose, today's marchers will be setting a historic precedent. Although Guatemala's constitution states that the government is responsible for damages caused by state employees in the exercise of their duties, no one has ever dared sue.

In Guatemala it never has been a wise idea to take on the state's security apparatus.

But some things are changing. While the police remain brutal and corrupt, human-rights activists say, a new respect for human rights may be gaining ground.

The country's 36-year-old civil war came to an end late last year, when the government and left-wing guerrillas signed a peace accord brokered by the United Nations.

Now human-rights lawyers are watching closely to see what happens to the street children's case. Some wonder if it might open the door for similar lawsuits by family members of the more than 150,000 people murdered by the military during the war.

For years the street children's plight went unnoticed.

Many are orphans of the war and other violence. Others have been abandoned by parents unable or unwilling to support them. Some have run away from home.

While the violence against street children in Guatemala is a serious problem, the situation is far worse in countries such as Brazil and Colombia, where hundreds are killed each year.

But their cause has received worldwide attention in recent years, mainly due to the efforts of Covenant House, the New York-based child-advocacy group that has programs for homeless children in Guatemala, Mexico and Honduras.

Casa Alianza, as it is known in Central America, was presented the Olof Palme Prize in Sweden in January for its courageous work defending the rights of street children. The prize is awarded annually by a fund established in the name of the assassinated Swedish prime minister.

It all began with Nahaman. He and nine other street children were sniffing glue before dawn one March day in 1990 when they were surrounded by a group of police.

Nahaman was thrown to the ground and kicked ferociously. He died in a hospital 10 days later.

Nahaman was by no means the first child to suffer at the hands of the police, but his was the first case to which authorities were forced to pay attention.

When Casa Alianza tried to investigate his death, the police and courts did everything they could to hinder the investigation. Casa Alianza's Latin America director, Bruce Harris, together with members of his Guatemalan staff, received death threats. Harris was forced to leave the country.

But that didn't stop him.

Harris, who is British, began an international campaign against police and others who have beaten and killed street children.

With funding from the Canadian government and the European Union, Casa Alianza created a legal aid office in 1992. Since then, it has filed more than 300 criminal cases against 140 Guatemalan police officers and 40 soldiers for the torture and murder of street children.

Other cases have been brought in Honduras, where Casa Alianza has campaigned against another disturbing official practice whereby children of criminal offenders are jailed with their parents. In at least one case, a child was murdered by another inmate.

In April 1992, four police officers finally were convicted of killing Nahaman. They each were sentenced to 12 years in jail and ordered to pay civil damages of about $1,650 to Nahaman's family.

The damages have never been paid.

Which is why Casa Alianza, on behalf of Nahaman's family, is now suing the government.

It's a matter of closure _ for the family and for the future of all street kids _ says Harris.

"We are trying to push the system to work. We have to show that they can't get away with murder," he said. "We have gone from just watching the violence happen and nothing being done about it, to documenting the violence and prosecuting the perpetrators."

Harris says he is reasonably optimistic about the lawsuit.

"All we are asking for is the fulfillment of a sentence."

Guatemala's government, he says, has become increasingly aware of the problem and receptive to solutions. President Alvaro Arzu, who has won international praise for his handling of the peace process, is a supporter of several children's charities.

In a recent meeting with Guatemala's attorney general, Harris said, the government's top lawman told him he would recommend that the lawsuit not be contested and the damages paid.

"The government is trying to promote democracy and the peace process," said Harris. "We wish to support them. But unless there is a judicial system that functions, there is no real democracy."

And, in the absence of long-term solutions to deal with the social conditions that force children onto the streets, the problem will never go away.

A coordinated policy for the needs of young people is needed, says Harris. An estimated 54 percent of Central America's population is under 18 years old. The average age for men is 17.6, compared with roughly 40 in the United States.

One thing has changed as a result of Casa Alianza's efforts: Reports of police violence against the children have dropped dramatically in Guatemala. Sadly, murders of children are up, however, with 17 deaths last year.

Investigations by Casa Alianza's legal aid office indicate that most attacks are now the work of private security guards. A dramatic rise in crime in the capital in recent years has led to a proliferation of private security firms, which hire many of their employees from the ranks of the police and army.

But some killings have been carried out by what Harris describes as "unknown men dressed in civilian clothes." He suspects they are police in plain clothes.

The government, which is supposed to regulate the operation of private security firms, is doing little to deal with the new threat, says Harris.

And it is getting worse. Late last year, in the space of five weeks, five boys were found dead, all with their throats slit.

All the child victims will be remembered at a Mass on Saturday in Guatemala. Afterward, the street children will visit the graveyard where Casa Alianza has a mausoleum for street children.

An epitaph for Nahaman reads: "I only wanted to be a child, and they wouldn't let me."