At the entrance to the Casa Alianza shelter stands a statue of the Virgin Mary. It is a memorial bearing the names of 120 homeless children murdered on the streets of Guatemala. The first named is 13-year-old Nahaman Commona, kicked to death by policemen in March, 1990. Casa Alianza, a crisis charity in Central America, says that every month around 30 street children under the age of 18 suffer the same fate as Nathan - and no-one seems to care. Guatemala is a nation recovering from a 45 year civil war that ended ten years ago. A land of extraordinary beauty with more than 30 live volcanoes and ancient Mayan temples rising magnificently above jungle canopies, it is struggling with the brutal legacy of a conflict that left 200,000 people dead. It is a lawless society in many respects, one where public lynchings are commonplace and where gangs, drug cartels and a corrupt police force rule the dusty, low rise streets through intimidation.
We are in Guatemala City, a capital of three million people that sprawls across a mountain valley in the south. The vast majority of people here live well below the poverty line with only Haiti behind in the United Nations’ development index for the region. This city is surely one of the most violent capitals in the world at the moment and murder is as ubiquitous as the Latino streets vendors selling tortillas downtown. The army patrol the city and there are armed security guards nervously toting shotguns outside nearly every shop, restaurant and bar. It seems as if the city is under siege from itself and at nights the streets are deserted…save for the homeless.
Casa Alianza began in 1981 to aid orphans of the civil war and has since developed to serve street children, adolescent mothers and youths with drug problems. It has expanded into Honduras, Mexico and Nicaragua and there are three European offices - in the UK, Switzerland and Germany. The charity helps over 12,000 street children a year most of whom have been orphaned, abused and abandoned and there are two residential homes in Guatemala City. As we tour the Casa Alianza home for girls – there is another shelter in the city for boys - Sheila Royce, a British fund raiser from Corby, says the situation is deteriorating for children because of the indifference of the state to crime. “Guatemala is the most violent nation in Central America and violence is endemic. Some recent cases have rocked the nation but the police and government do little. Casa Alianza is asking for international pressure to demand justice,” she says. Such is the level of violence that in July, the United Nations accused the government of having an unofficial policy of “social cleansing” whereby “undesirables” such as the homeless and prostitutes would be targeted and killed. So for street children the situation is desperate and Casa Alianza is one of the only groups providing daily help on the streets.
There are around 80 girls staying here and we meet with Catarine Fuentes, a timid, dark haired 14-year-old who left her family for the streets after being sexually abused by her father. “I was scared when I left home. The biggest problem living on the streets was the violence and the sexual harassment,” she says. Catarine has been here for a month and has resumed her education with hopes of eventually becoming a forensic scientist. Rape and domestic violence are common in the family home in Guatemala because women have historically faced discrimination and are looked down on by a culture imbued with machista. Casa Alianza gives refuge to young mothers and at present there are 20 girls living here with their children. Claudio Rivera, who has worked with the project for five years, explains that most girls here have been sexually abused, some even by their own fathers.
In a shared bedroom with bunk beds for the girls and three white cots for children, Dora Estevez picks up her baby gently and kisses him on the forehead. Her son, Carlos Daniel, is two months old. Dora is only 12. She tells me she was raped by her step father and I ask how she feels at being a mother at such a young age. “It was not time for me but I have to look after him because he is my son,” she says. Dora kisses Carlos again and he kicks his legs and squeezes her finger. Dora smiles for the first time. Rivera says that the girls have to grow up quickly but that some reject their babies simply because they are so young. When children come into Casa Alianza they go through three “levels or phases to help reintroduce them back into normal society. The first is detoxification and stabilisation as many of the children arrive addicted to glue or crack. The second is a process of self-realisation where they are encouraged to understand why they have problems. The third step is to prepare them for leaving, either to go back to their families or to find jobs and independence. Many of the girls here will go on to work in the maquilas - traditional sewing machine work – where there are plenty of jobs.
Carlos Santos, 18, has been taught to read and write since coming from the streets into Casa Alianza’s boys shelter. He was homeless at the age of eight and by the age of 13 was addicted to shoe glue and crack, begging each day to pay for his habit. “I slept in 18th street in Zone One in a cardboard box. The police would beat us up and take our drugs. I knew lots of kids who simply disappeared. The maras (gangs) would make us steal money to buy drugs,” he says. Carlos is now off drugs and back in touch with his family after Casa Alianza’s street workers encouraged him to leave the streets. “I have my self-respect back and I won’t fall into drugs again.” OUT on the streets with Casa Alianza volunteers we witness for ourselves the dire conditions children face in this city. At a park in Zone 1, a group of children appear as we arrive wearing the charity’s blue vests.
The main aim of Casa Alianza is to offer medical aid to the kids, some who are as young as nine or 10, and to give them the opportunity to leave the streets. Daniel Eley, a volunteer from Guildford, dons white latex gloves and starts speaking Spanish to a young man called Manuel. He tends to a cut on the boy’s right cheek. “This is a very dangerous area and these kids suffer a lot of violence here, especially from the police and military.” As we chat two soldiers in green khaki uniforms walk past with rifles held low across their waists. They glower at us and the group of dirty children awaiting medical treatment. One barks at us not to take photographs. “The kids tell us the soldiers beat them up and pistol whip them,” Daniel says. As the soldiers walk off the children give them the V signs behind their backs. Later, in Zone 2 we meet with other homeless youths, some of whom are sniffing shoe. The solvent can be bought from street vendors legally and Casa Alianza is trying to pressure the government into making the substance illegal to sell to children under the age of 18.”
Casa Alianza does not give out food to children as the charity wants them to leave the streets but many who do go into a shelter return to being homeless quickly. “The lure of the streets is strong and many just want a shower and some food. But those who do stay undergo an amazing life change,” Daniel says. We drive to another area of the city where dozens of street kids come to take drugs together. It’s a derelict building strewn with litter and smells of excrement and urine. There are piles of dirty clothes, plastic bottles and an old bed sits in one corner, legs broken at one end so it slants. Bricks and boulders are visible on a parapet, ammunition to throw at police, Daniel explains. “The police come here to beat them up and rob the kids,” he adds. Later, in zone 4, we meet with more street children and Sandra with her three months old baby. Alfredo is asleep. Other youths sit on lumps of concrete concentrating on making friendship bracelets out of coloured string. A couple of other boys soak rags with solvent and inhale through their mouths. A delivery driver draws up on a motorbike laden with brown paper bags full of hot food. And Daniel tends to a boy in a black vest with severe burns marks on his left arm, an accident from sniffing solvent. “I feel I am making a difference and it makes me understand how lucky I am…I am glad to be here,” Daniel says.
Our blogs are written by Amnesty International staff, volunteers and other interested individuals, to encourage debate around human rights issues. They do not necessarily represent the views of Amnesty International.