GUATEMALA CITY — Each night, once all the street vendors have cleared out of Guatemala's 18th-Street market and only the rats remain, Jose Cordero climbs onto a wooden crate and tries to sleep.
Fourteen years old and in his third year of street life, Jose sniffs glue, smokes crack, and survives on whatever food he can beg or steal.
"It stinks living in the street, because the police hit you," Jose says. "You could get killed for robbing. And some people abuse you when you beg for money."
While no exact figures are available, Casa Alianza, the Latin American office of Covenant House, an international Catholic organization working with street children, estimates there are 35,000 homeless kids in Central America - up from around 15,000 to 20,000 five years ago. Guatemala's number - some 6,000 - is rising because of refugees pouring in from nearby countries - including victims of Hurricane Mitch from Nicaragua and Honduras.
Rejected by society as thieving ragamuffins, the children suffer not just hunger and neglect, but are abused and sometimes killed in the streets, according to Casa Alianza, and the perpetrators - in some cases police - are rarely brought to justice.
But now, in Guatemala, there are signs that the government may be ready to do something about the plight of these children.
Prodded by Casa Alianza, the government has agreed to accept responsibility and pay compensation to the relatives of two slain children and to a surviving victim of brutality in cases from the early 1990s. Street-children advocates hope the Guatemalan government's actions will serve as a model for the rest of the region.
"The fact that Guatemala has recognized violations of human rights by the state itself is a big step forward, and I think it will help Guatemala to be recognized within the community of nations that recognizes the most fundamental human rights of its children," says Bruce Harris, the regional director of Casa Alianza.
"I think this can be an example for the region and serve as a basis for ... breaking the walls of impunity and heeding the cries of the victims of human rights violations," says Oswaldo Enriquez, Guatemala's presidential adviser on human rights issues.
Casa Alianza won the compensations, totaling about $29,000, in a friendly settlement before the Inter-American Human Rights Commission of the Organization of American States.
Although Casa Alianza maintains that the perpetrators of the three crimes were police or military, the settlement refers only to the government's accepting responsibility for human rights violations in general without specifying state involvement in the crimes or failure to serve justice in the cases.
In 1993, police killings of Brazilian street children focused international attention on so-called "social cleansing" of homeless children.
Difficult to count because of their varying situations, the world's street children range from those who live with or have contact with their families but work on the street, to homeless children completely on their own.
Honduras' situation appears particularly grave. According to Casa Alianza's research, 601 Honduran street children were killed in the past three years. Casa Alianza alleges that police were involved in more than half of these cases. But according to the crime-prevention unit of the Honduran police, these numbers are "totally exaggerated," and it denies any police involvement in deaths of street children.
In Guatemala last year, eight street children were killed, double the number killed the year before, according to Casa Alianza. But, in what Casa Alianza sees as an important change, no uniformed police were involved in any of these cases. According to the Guatemalan national civil police force, there are no records of police abuse of street children since the police force was restructured in 1997.
At the same time, police say they are being criticized by the public for not doing enough to clear the streets of the children, who often rob passersby. But it is the children who are the real victims in these robberies, Mr. Harris says. "While there are no programs for homeless children and no social services for them and they are hungry, they are going to steal."
Guatemala and Honduras both fail to prosecute those responsible for slayings, Casa Alianza says. In Honduras, Harris says, 67 percent of the 601 cases have not been investigated.
In Guatemala, none of the three OAS-settled cases alleging police involvement have been brought to trial, and in only one have charges been filed, and they are being challenged.
In one of the cases, from 1990, dogs were set on Juan Jose Mendez, severely injuring the 14-year-old. In another, Sergio Fuentes, 17, was shot dead. In the third, Marcos Quisquinay, 12, was given what appeared to be a bag of warm chicken while begging outside a fast- food restaurant in Guatemala City. He died when the bag exploded.
According to Harris, there are 400 cases of human rights violations against street kids that languish unresolved in Guatemala's judicial system.
Guatemala's recent settlement includes an agreement by the government to take steps toward treating street children humanely. Mr. Enriquez says the program, set to begin this year, will include opening state-run children's shelters, mounting a publicity campaign to raise public awareness about the plight of homeless children, and educating judicial system workers and police on children's rights.
Though specifics remain undefined, the program's long-term goals are to enact labor, education, and health policies that will combat forces that drive children into homelessness. These long-term changes are the most crucial, Harris says.
Casa Alianza, which brings about 700 kids a year to its refuge, knows better than anyone that once children are on the streets, it is hard to save them.
After 10 days undergoing drug rehab and sleeping in a real bed, Jose Cordero said he was happy to be off the streets. But a few days ago, during an outing with other kids from the Casa Alianza refuge, Jose ran away.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society