Selvyn says he is 14 but he looks about eight. His feet are bare, his clothes torn and his eyes heavy with the effects of sniffing a powerful glue. His home is nearby, beneath the stars and beside a municipal rubbish dump. His neighbours are other street children – equally feral and ragged and loaded – and the hovering vultures which compete with them for scraps of food on the dump.
They are among thousands of street children in Tegucigalpa and thousands more in Guatemala City and in San Salvador whose chances of making it out of their teens alive sometimes seem as slim as their malnourished frames.
Local children’s organisations claim that hundreds of children and young people have already been killed with gunshots to the back of the head in summary executions that almost always go undetected and unpunished.
The killings are reaching epidemic proportions in parts of Central America. In April alone, in Honduras, there were 72 such deaths, last year 549 and a total of 1,817 since 1998, according to the organisation that works with street children, Casa Alianza.
In Guatemala City, the average is 40 such murders a month. In February, an 11-year-old called Oscar was one of the victims, his body left at the side of the road. In February, one of the bodies of a young man found in the Honduran city of San Pedro Sula had the words “limpiando la ciudad” [cleaning up the city] scrawled on his bare shoulder in ballpoint pen.
Casa Alianza claims that many of the murders are a form of “social cleansing” whereby vigilante groups and police regard the deaths as others might regard the removal of vermin. The Honduran government believes that most of the killings are gang-related. Both human rights groups and government agree that the numbers of deaths amount to an epidemic of violence, with a murder rate 50 times that of the UK.
Around 10% of the killings have been carried out by people shooting from cars, nicknamed “los carros de la muerte” [death cars]. One car, a red pick-up, has been involved in a number of the shootings. Few of the killings are ever solved. Some are certainly inter-gang feuds, murders over drug deals or territory. But others are believed to have been carried out by police officers – both on-duty and off-duty – or by people hired by businesses frustrated by the escalating crime rate.
Juan, 16, also lives beside the rubbish dump. It is a dangerous life, he says, because they can be attacked at any time by the police. “Why do they attack us? Because they like to. Yes, it’s dangerous but this is where we live.”
Behind the national football stadium two other young men, Santos and Oscar, are hanging out. They are 19 and 20 but look at least six years younger. Santos has been on the streets since he was 13. Oscar, whose blood-stained T-shirt says “Happy Holidays” in English and whose baseball cap reads “No Fear”, makes a living selling little plastic bags of water to passing cars. He has lost his front teeth and carries the scars of battle on both cheeks.
Hector, 22, who earns a living taking care of parked cars, says he knows of at least 35 other young men who have been killed on the streets. “Everyone knows someone who has been killed,” he said, pointing to a place where he said the latest body had been found. Of the murder victims in February, the youngest was eight; there was also a 13- year-old, three 15-year-olds and four aged 16.
Not all on the streets are young men. Maria, 17, carrying a baby even grubbier than herself, giggled as she talked about life on the street. Like many of the girls, she makes her money as a prostitute and spends it mainly on the powerful glue, Resistol, or marijuana.
The street children have an ally in the shape of Casa Alianza behind whose downtown pastel blue walls lies a home for 122 children between 11 and 18. Not that the only young people who die are street children or gang members.
Juan Antunez was 16 and, according to his family, a good student involved in a dance group. He had been with friends in July 2001 who were stopped by the police and asked for their papers. According to his family, he had his school identification with him. But the boys panicked and ran and he was shot three times in the back. The policeman who shot him has not been identified. His mother, Sara and sister, Cecilia, wept as they described what happened and their frustration that no one has been arrested.
Darwin Sauceda, 16, was found dead in February last year with bullet wounds in the shape of a cross. He had been in trouble with the police and, according to his mother, Sara Sauceda, he had paid money to the police for protection. “The saddest thing was that he [the policeman] had said that he would shoot him 15 times and he was found with 15 bullet wounds … Many children have been victims. Here justice is something you cannot get.”
Alex Baca, 18, had been in a friend’s house in April last year when it was visited by the police. Baca told his mother that he had been threatened by one officer. “The next morning they found the body on a hill not far away,” said his mother, Felicita Peralta.
“He had been killed in a horrible way. They had burned his body and beaten him and strangled him and thrown his body down the ravine.” Those three cases remain unsolved.
“For the last five years we have been trying to put this issue into the public domain,” said Gustavo Zelaya, of Casa Alianza. “At least now there is recognition in the government that there there is a problem. There has been discussion but there is an enormous gulf between discussion and action.”
The Latin American regional director of Casa Alianza, Bruce Harris, said he believed that the killings accelerated because people saw that they could “literally get away with murder … On top of this, some irresponsible Honduran media incite violence against any young person with a tattoo, baggy pants and a back-to-front baseball cap.”
Government reaction to the problem has varied from country to country. “There has been zero reaction from the Guatemalan government,” said Mr Harris. “They obviously do not care. The [Ricardo] Maduro administration [in Honduras] has been much more engaged than previous administrations and I feel that a couple of ministers are truly concerned and trying to do something but the situation is out of control.”
The Honduran government, under the Nationalist party’s President Maduro, whose son was killed in a kidnap attempt, formed a commission last year to investigate how many deaths had taken place. Their own figures for the deaths of children up to the age of 18 are 772 in the last five years; Casa Alianza include young people up to 23 in their statistics.
The minister of security, Oscar Alvarez, who was previously in the Honduran special forces and private security, denied that the authorities condoned the murders. “First of all, it is a not a policy of the state and, secondly, we have made it very clear to the police that if they do it, they will be prosecuted to the full extent of the law,” he said.
The minister of the interior, Jorge Her nandez, said the majority of the killings were the result of inter-gang warfare which accelerated after the US started deporting Hondurans convicted of felonies in the US. He saidthe killings jumped from 36 in 2000 to 276 in 2001 and 310 in 2002. There are only 300 detectives nationally and only 30 in Tegucigalpa with a population of around 1 million. Resources are scarce: Honduras is a poor country with a 6.5 million population, unemployment is at 28%, illiteracy at 27% and at least 53% of the country live below the poverty line.
“Even though the number of killings in which there are indications that authorities have participated is very small – 23 – the commission decided to give priority to these cases,” said Mr Hernandez. Four cases had been solved and two police officers sentenced to 20 and 30 years.
The presidential adviser on the issue, Ramon Romero, said: “It is a complex phenomenon. The majority of actions in which police are participating are not as police officers but out of working hours.” Romero’s son, 19, a member of the Mara 18 gang, was killed by shots fired from a grey van. “There were six men. They used 9mm pistols. That night the same car killed seven people in four different places. In the morgue I started to talk with the parents of the other boys and girls; we concluded it was the same car.”
On the outskirts of the capital, in Comayaguela, lies the municipal cemetery and at its highest point is a place where the street children are buried. It is like looking at a small war cemetery, but the combatants are even younger: 13 and 14 and 15 and a few who have made it into their early 20s. “This tomb guards your body, God your soul and us your memory,” says the message on one of the graves.
Whether the Selvyns and Juans and Hectors and Oscars currently consigned to life’s rubbish dump will end up there is one of the many dark mysteries now facing Honduras and much of Central America.