IN the wake of the July 23 murders of eight destitute boys in Rio de Janeiro, Brazilians have been struggling to understand why children are living on the streets and why they are being killed.
Analysts and human rights observers here blame worsening economic conditions and a police force known for its human rights abuses for many of the problems these children face. Three members of Brazil's Military Police and a security guard hired by Rio shopkeepers have been accused of committing the killings.
The government claims 7 million children live in the streets of Brazil. And according to a World Health Organization (WHO) report released in April, there are 40 million street children in Latin America and some 100 million children living in the streets worldwide.
"Some are born on the street to older children, some come from families who can no longer support them," the report says. The WHO study found that nearly 100 percent of the children living on the streets of Rio de Janeiro use drugs, and 55 percent had attempted suicide.
From January to June of this year, Brazil's Civil Police say that 298 minors were killed in Rio de Janeiro state, the highest number for that period in the last six years. Research conducted by the Brazilian Institute of Social and Economic Analysis (IBASE) indicated that in one year the majority of killings of children were committed by drug traffickers, death squads (in which off duty police or ex-police officers take part), and private security guards. At least 70 percent of cases involving police off icers are never punished, says Rosana Heringer of IBASE.
"A good part of the Brazilian population accepts the extermination of street children. How many times do police officers - including those accused of the recent killings - hear people asking them to kill?" says Wanderlei Borges, press spokesman for Rio's Lt. Governor and Secretary of Civil Police, Nilo Batista. Kids considered pests
Mr. Borges explains that children who violate laws in Brazil are arrested, spend a few days in a correctional center, and then are released again, much to the frustration of shopkeepers and other community members who "demand" action from police.
It isn't known whether the military officers arrested for the July 23 killings near the Candelaria Cathedral were hired by shopkeepers to "clean" the neighborhood of street kids, but this is a common practice in major Brazilian cities.
According to local reports, survivors said that the day before the murders, the children had stoned a Military Police car to get back at officers who had detained a friend of theirs for sniffing glue. The kids claimed the killings were payback for the rock throwing.
Like Borges, Col. Abilio Faria, a spokesman for the Military Police in Rio, believes that Brazilian society encourages police officers to kill. He said that after the murder of the street youths, the Military Police set up a hotline for the public to call if they had any tips on the case.
"Many people called up and said, `The only good criminal is a dead criminal. You should've killed more of those kids.' Ours is an authoritarian society that doesn't like a democratic police," he says.
"Street children are really thought of as monsters, as potential killers. The attitude is let's kill them first before they kill us," says Marta Rosana de Souza of the National Movement of Street Children, a political action group active all over the country.
Rio state Representative Paulo Melo, who headed the state's first government inquiry into the extermination of children, says the problem has to do with Brazil's foreign debt and a worsening economic situation that made the middle class disappear. This widened the disparity between the upper and lower classes and forced children onto the streets to survive, he says.
Mr. Melo, who spent part of his childhood living on the streets, says the street children could be helped if they found someone to believe in them, as he did when he was young.
Borges says the Rio state government is considering mandatory night shelters for street children to prevent more killings from occurring.
Some think raising police salaries would stop them from taking on the off-duty work of exterminating street children. Colonel Faria doesn't think that raising the salary for Military Police from $130 a month would necessarily reduce the violence because, "Government ministers have a huge salary and that doesn't keep them from committing crimes." An effort to help
Faria does put faith in program that started in 1988 by the Military Police which allows street kids to visit the quarters where Military Police officers train and learn to be "friends" with them.
They are able to play soccer, visit the horse stables, eat, shower, and stay the night in the same quarters where the officers live. Ironically, some kids from Candelaria visited just a couple of weeks ago.
But when Ms. de Souza of the National Movement of Street Children goes out on the streets to educate children about their rights, she sees the fear in their eyes when they talk about the police. "Police beat, rape, and kill. Street children should be afraid of them," she says.