GUATEMALA CITY — NINE-YEAR-OLD Luis Ger'onimo is reluctant to talk about the night last March when he and other children saw four Guatemalan policemen beat his friend Nahaman Carmona L'opez, 13, after they caught the group sniffing glue on a street corner in downtown Guatemala City. But when pressed, the slightly built child clad in scruffy clothes summons up the courage he will need in order to testify if the policemen arrested for the crime are brought to trial.
``They were all shouting at us, and then one kicked Nahaman hard, real hard, in the stomach,'' he says, a dull look in his dark brown eyes. ``Then we all just ran as fast as we could.''
Nahaman died several days later of internal damage from the beating, another in what human rights groups say is a growing pattern of police killings of abandoned children who ply the streets of the capital.
Nahaman's case figures prominently in a July Amnesty International report, which cites ``harassment, beatings, and extra-judicial executions carried out by Guatemala City police acting sometimes in uniform or in plainclothes'' against many of the estimated 5,000 orphaned, abandoned, or handicapped children who live on city streets.
The plight of street children in Guatemala and other Latin American countries is not new, especially in Brazil, where another Amnesty International report released recently charges paramilitary forces with assassinating hundreds of street children.
A marked increase in Guatemalan child killings has this year forced the issue into the public eye.
``We estimate between 40 and 50 children have been murdered just since January, more than last year,'' says Carlos Toledo. ``But many other cases go unreported.'' Mr. Toledo is vice-coordinator of Casa Alianza, a program affiliated with the Covenant House program for runaways in the US.
Casa Alianza runs a refuge and six group homes for street children in Guatemala City. The organization is but one of dozens of similar aid programs in Guatemala. But it has gained publicity for challenging the police in the courts. Casa Alianza directors say the arrests of four policemen for the killing of Nahaman Carmona marked a step forward. They also have lawsuits pending against at least 25 policemen.
Most abuses involve beatings or instances where police force children to swallow the glue they find them sniffing. Addiction to glue is the most common form of substance abuse.
The police do not deny rights abuses occur, but blame the problem on irresponsible parents and a faulty criminal justice system.
``So far this year, 146 human rights violations by our forces have been reported, placing the police third behind the Army and civil defense patrols in numbers of abuses,'' says police spokeswoman Sandra de Leiva. ``But try to understand how the police feel when they round up bands of delinquents, and then these kids are right back on the streets.''
Ms. De Leiva called the problem socioeconomic, for both police and the children. ``These kids are largely abandoned by parents who cannot care for them,'' she said, speaking in the fortress-like headquarters in Guatemala City. Police often come from street backgrounds, she says.
Partly at Casa Alianza's urging, the police last year began a program called ``Street Educators'' to teach police the background of the problem: divided families, high unemployment, alcohol abuse, and the fact that many children are orphans of people killed in Guatemala's decades-old guerrilla insurgency. The aim is to encourage policemen to counsel children they encounter, then refer them to assistance agencies.
But Casa Alianza worker Julio L'opez says the police program has had little impact. ``I worked as a police investigator for over a year and I know their thinking on this problem,'' Mr. L'opez says. ``Not only do the police see these kids as immediate crime problems, but they say the situation will only get worse if the children grow up to become adult criminals. So, many cops feel, `Why not just eliminate them now?'''
L'opez had no trouble finding more children in a bustling street market near the city's main bus terminal. He sat down on a curb to talk to one boy waking up from a night's sleep with disheveled hair and grimy clothes.
Soon, L'opez had his arm around the boy's shoulder as the two took a bus to the refuge.
``We'd been looking for this particular kid for some time, as he'd been forced to swallow Baggies full of glue and had been in the hospital,'' L'opez said later, indicating the youth may have to testify against the police.
Casa Alianza's stand on the issue has created new meaning for the term ``refuge,'' with police keeping a close eye on the house and its ever-growing number of tenants. Casa directors say one former worker with the program was killed recently, and child witnesses to the murders of children have been threatened by police.
Inside the house, a visitor is immediately struck by the children's evident need for attention, as several boys (and a few girls) quickly give big hugs or show visitors the ``street handshake.'' - the Guatemalan version of ``give-me-five'' style hand slapping in the United States. They sleep each night on small mats in the same rooms, after an hour of story telling and what directors call ``reflection time.''
Seemingly oblivious to any danger he may face as a witness to the Carmona crime, tiny Luis Ger'onimo showed a visitor his math lessons, taking a break from one room where school was in session.
``Here, see this,'' he said, pointing to three-digit addition and subtraction problems in a small notebook, his eyes beaming with pride and excitement.