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`Social Cleansing' Targets Street Children

In Colombia and Brazil, homeless kids have been killed by groups that may include police

SIMON BOLIVAR - that, at least, is the name he gave - has lived on the streets of Botota since he was eight years old. He's not used to being indoors, because he still flicks his cigarette ash on the floor as he describes life on the street.

Simon is one of 20,000 homeless people in this city, according to the Andean Commission of Jurists, Colombian Section, in Bogota. Census figures released last year from the New Life Halfway House here say Bogota has 4,000 homeless children over 15 years of age and 3,500 under 14.

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The young man talks with enthusiasm of Thirteenth Street, where the prostitutes work. Mugging is particularly easy there, says Simon, who operates as a member of an informal team. When his team approaches a target, one member may go after his shoes, one after his money, one after his watch, while another team member looks out for the police.

``There are plenty of guys. They've got money in their pockets. So my team takes his money, his jacket, and even his shoes.'' These items are immediately redeemable for drugs from the local pusher, who sells them marijuana, or basuco, the Colombian brand of ``crack'' cocaine.

This sort of petty theft meant the death sentence for 505 young people in 1992, according to a human rights report issued by the Andean Commission. Police and private security groups have killed children like Simon as they sleep in parks.

Called ``social cleansing,'' this extermination is common in Colombia's cities. Glue sniffers, prostitutes, rag pickers, and homosexuals are all targets, because they are ``dirtying the image of Colombia's cities,'' according to a communique from one ``social cleansing'' group in Cali.

A group called the Black Hand has been operating in Sims neighborhood for several years. He figures that the Black Hand was contracted for by parents of mugged high school students. These social-cleansing groups are often made up of off-duty police.

Some say the technique was brought from Brazil, where an average of four street children are killed per day, according to a Brazilian congressional study released two years ago. In the extermination of youths, human rights groups place Brazil and Colombia at the top of the list for the Americas, followed by Haiti and Guatemala.

Social cleansing is one factor making violence the major cause of death for males between the ages of 19 and 45 in Colombia, according to government figures.

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Both Colombia and Brazil have undergone rapid urbanization over the last two decades. In Colombia, peasants seek refuge from guerrilla and death-squad violence in the countryside. Brazil's cities are teeming with job hunters. In both cases, parents push their children out into the streets to sell candies at stoplights, to steal, to prostitute themselves, or just to be rid of them.

Shoplifters become a nuisance to shop owners who often hire police to ``exterminate'' them, says Vera Malagutti, police adviser to the governor of the state of Rio de Janeiro. ``Here, it's just like in Colombia: A human life is worth nothing,'' she says.

``Public opinion says that this is normal and the best way to eliminate crime in a city,'' says Sonia Zambrano, a commission researcher. ``It is more important to protect property than human life. In the upper and middle classes, there is support for this, as well as approval for more liberal gun laws.'' Carlos Rojas, a researcher for Bogots Center for Information and Popular Education (CINEP), concurs. ``I think there is a large acceptance of social cleansing,'' Mr. Rojas says.

CINEP has been keeping statistics on social cleansing since 1985 when the social-cleansing group called ``Death to Urchins'' appeared in Bogota. A year later, Colombia's Interior Minister Cesar Gavriria Trujillo, who is now president, identified 140 death squads operating in the country, of which about 43 are dedicated to social cleansing.

Death-squad activities are called ``private justice,'' since a faulty police and judiciary system does not do the job of keeping youths like Simon from stealing. ``The judicial system is so discredited that it never even occurs to anyone to resort to the law,'' Zambrano says.

Some police in both Colombia and Brazil have been corrupted and will even participate in the crime. ``The police will let you steal for a percentage,'' Simon says. ``If they don't get their share, you go up to the mountain.'' The roads that lead up to mountains flanking Bogota are the most popular places to dump bodies, Simon says.

Colombia's National Police used to deny the existence of the death squads, saying that the urchins are killed fighting among themselves. But police are slowly acknowledging that participation in social cleansing is one of many problems facing a police force in which, on average, seven officers are fired daily for all types of improper conduct.

Col. Eduardo Arevalo, spokesman for the Defense Ministry, of which the National Police is a part, notes that no police officer has been sentenced for participating in social-cleansing operations. But human rights groups say this merely reveals the police department's ability to manipulate the system. Both sides can agree with Colonel Arevalo's analysis: ``We live in a very difficult, complicated society, because impunity is so high.''

Arevalo says participation by police in the social cleansing has worked against the force.

``It is a factor in demoralizing the officers, and it is the aspect that most defames the institution,'' he says.

One of the most violent countries in the world, Colombia has a murder rate nine times that of the United States, which is already considered the most violent of the industrialized nations.

Colombia came under scrutiny during June's United Nations Human Rights Conference in Vienna. The Colombian delegation declared that human rights was a matter of national sovereignty, arguing that punitive trade sanctions would hurt its economy.

But two university professors disagreed in Colombia's largest daily, El Tiempo.

``The third world in general, and Colombia in particular, cannot shield itself behind its own underdevelopment so as to avoid compliance with human rights. Accepting such a posture is like saying that social-cleansing operations exist in the country because there are prostitutes, drug addicts, and street urchins...,'' wrote professors Arlene Tickner and Paulina Zuleta of the University of the Andes in Bogota.

The Colombian government fears a return to the standards defined under US President Jimmy Carter: Then, foreign aid and favorable trade status were conditioned on improved human rights records, says Juan Tokatlian, dean of the School of International Studies at the University of the Andes.

Simon, meanwhile, has found some refuge from the social-cleansing operations at a halfway house called New Life, where he can sleep and wash his clothes. At the age of 19, he has given up sniffing glue and smoking basuco, he says. But he fears for his friends in the park. ``At any given moment,'' Simon says, ``someone might wind up on the mountainside.''

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