Castaway Kids

August 24, 1993

Near a gold-encrusted church in Rio de Janeiro's banking district hooded gunmen opened fire last month on sleeping children in the pre-dawn hours. Five boys were killed. The gunmen also murdered two boys who were sleeping in gardens at the city's Museum of Modern Art.

Brazilians were outraged. At last.

In many Third World cities, castaway kids are a common sight. But in Brazil, which boasts the world's tenth largest economy, their lives are increasingly cheap. "Extermination" is a harsh word, but it is frequently used to describe the deliberate killings of street children in Brazil -- an average of two a day this year, according to one group that works with street children.

It is widely believed that police officers are involved in the late-night "death squads" sometimes hired by merchants bothered by beggars and petty thieves, many of them homeless children. The country's federal police report 4,611 killings of children and adolescents between 1988 and 1990.

This time, however, the brazen killings have sparked public outrage absent in the past.

Brazil's president, Itamar Franco, said he was horrified by the crime and assigned the country's minister of justice to oversee the case, and three military policemen were arrested. That's progress.

Many Brazilians have prospered in recent years, and the country now has the highest per capita income in Latin America. But as the World Bank has noted, it also has the most unfair distribution of income of any major country in the world. According to one recent study, about half of Brazil's 60 million children survive on less than $1 a day. That statistic helps explain the social forces that create street kids in the first place.

This income disparity, along with the migration of millions of Brazilians from poor rural areas into towns and cities, creates a fortress mentality in which affluent Brazilians spend small fortunes protecting themselves against their less fortunate fellow citizens. How tragic that so often these "enemies" are children. Part castaway, part runaway, hundreds of thousands of these kids are found in Brazil's cities. They live in groups, re-creating the family relationships they lost or never really had.

Brazil's economic growth has been impressive. But the statistics only highlight the human tragedy every street kid represents. Perhaps a massacre of children sleeping in the shadow of a church will prompt reforms that can prevent these tragedies in the future.

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