REPRESENTATIVES of human rights and child advocacy groups have delivered a petition to the Sao Paulo state attorney general, asking him to halt a police program to get street children and adolescents off this city's streets.
Signed by 38 groups, the petition delivered March 11 represents the first real test of Brazil's Statute of the Child and Adolescent, which became law in 1990 but remains largely unimplemented.
In Brazil, poor children and teens often leave their homes to make a living on city streets, illegally or legally. Often they get involved in the violent underside of urban life here: In 1991, 61 young people were killed in the state of Sao Paulo, and police confiscated 700 firearms from teens and children.
The police program began March 4, in response to a growing number of violent crimes committed by young people, often teaming up with adults. City police chief Hermes Bittencourt Cruz says police are merely trying to convince children to go home or to SOS Crianca (SOS Child), a state-run institution whose aim is to reinsert youngsters into their own communities.
Activists say the police are violating Brazil's Constitution and the 1990 statute, which ensures minors the "right to freedom, respect, and dignity as a human being" and the right to "come and go and be in public and community space." They claim police are repressing street children and violating a constitutional provision allowing arrest only when an individual is caught in the act of a crime, or with a judicial warrant. Church mobilization
"We saw the police arresting four boys [in a downtown square] this afternoon, for sniffing glue, which is not a crime," Joao Benedito Azevedo Marques, a member of the human rights commission of the Sao Paulo chapter of the Order of Brazilian Attorneys, said last week. "And only one of them was actually doing the sniffing."
The Roman Catholic Church has been especially active in the fight against the police program. Late last week, Archbishop Dom Paulo Evaristo Arns, a longtime human rights champion, was mobilizing hundreds of Sao Paulo parishes on the issue, and trying to set up meetings with top government officials.
Protests aside, the police action has had little impact, although it now is to become city-wide. In one week, Colonel Cruz says they have made contact with 200 youngsters, sent 20 to SOS Crianca and arrested six adults who were exploiting children.
"Some of them are their own parents, who force the children to beg or sell candy in the street, even in the hot sun or the rain, and make them hand over the money," says Cruz. "Other adults supply them with drugs or guns. They say they do this because they know the law protects minors from prosecution."
The police chief believes human rights groups are prejudiced against the police, generating unnecessary attention when they could be helping the police to deal with the street children.
Public attention to violence against children is causing the Brazilian government discomfort. Foreign Minister Francisco Rezek told the daily O Estado de Sao Paulo last week that the government is looking at ways to show that it is doing something about the killing of poor children in Brazil. Three weeks ago, a congressional committee released Brazil's first official report on the killing of minors, providing the names of groups and individuals who commit such crimes.
Meanwhile, violent crime continues to increase in Sao Paulo. In the first two months of this year, 189 children between the ages of nine and 14 were involved in such crimes in the state of Sao Paulo. Last week, a minor allegedly shot and killed a taxi driver during a holdup. "He wanted to disarm me and I was faster," the minor reportedly said.
Sao Paulo governor Luiz Antonio Fleury Filho wants to lower the legal threshold of adulthood from 18 to 16 years of age, to make it easier to prosecute teens.
"The tension is growing, throwing the minor against the rest of society," says Alba Zaluar, a Rio de Janeiro anthropologist. "On the one side you have people who want to walk the streets with a minimum of safety; on the other, you have minors who get nothing out of the crimes, because they are exploited by adults."
Local public opinion is not easy to gauge. A newspaper editorial calling for improved public safety brought applause from readers.
"The extermination of minors by adults is called genocide," commented one letter. "And what shall we call the extermination of adults by minors?" At the same time, interviews on a busy Sao Paulo street found that people have little confidence in any government solution; many say Brazilian politicians are corrupt. Cultural problem
Brazilians seem aware that the street children are a social as well as a police problem.
"I have been robbed in my car several times, by children 10 and 12 years old; they pulled off my jewelry," says Katsue Saito, a Japanese woman who grew up here. "It's an educational, cultural, and social problem. Human beings have no value."
Trying to answer the question of who is the real victim will not bring needed results, says Walter Oliveira, a Brazilian research associate at the University of Minnesota's Center for Youth Development, doing field work in Sao Paulo. He says the government should set up a task force to create and implement an integrated social policy, get beyond the rhetoric, and mediate among the various interest groups and agencies involved in the issue.
"The modern moment calls for negotiation, planning, evaluation, and accountability," he says. "The question is what do we do and how do we do it?"