Guatemala/United Kingdom - Guatemala/Regno Unito
Photo by Eddie Adams
"Why are the children hungry? Why are they being abused and murdered?"
Throughout Latin America, homeless children are beaten, tortured, raped, and murdered with virtual impunity. Bruce Harris was Central America’s foremost advocate for "street kids." From 1989 to 2004, Harris was the director of Casa Alianza, in Guatemala City, which provides food, shelter, medical care, drug rehabilitation, counseling, skill training, legal aid, and other services to forty-four hundred homeless children abandoned to the streets. His investigations have led to 392 criminal prosecutions where children were the victims, and he was the first person in the history of Guatemala to successfully sue police for the murder of a street child. At the request of the Attorney General, Harris investigated and exposed a baby-trafficking ring where poor women were tricked into giving up their infants for adoption. Bound for the United States, each of these infants yielded a hefty twenty-thousand-dollar fee for unscrupulous middlemen. One alleged perpetrator (married to the president of the Guatemalan Supreme Court) then filed criminal charges against Harris for defamation. In Guatemala, truth is no defense in a defamation suit, and defamation is a criminal offense. Despite the danger of imprisonment (with some of the fifteen law enforcement personnel he helped land in jail), Harris forged ahead. Today Harris resides in the United States and continues to work in the area of social service, serving seniors on low, fixed- incomes and grandparents raising grandchildren. Harris advocates for better entitlement programs for seniors and works one-on-one with seniors to help solve their seemingly insurmountable problems. In 2006, Harris was a participant in the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights’ gala in New York City.
I’m not fully sure of what my reason for being is, but a lot of it is to protect children who have nobody to protect them. We are the sum of the parts of people who have had an impact on us in our own lives. We all have our heroes. Mine is Nahaman.
Soon after I joined Casa Alianza, I befriended Nahaman, a thirteen-year-old boy. One day, Nahaman’s best friend, Francisco, came to the crisis center and shouted through the gate for him to get high, and by midnight seven or eight kids were huddled around with their faces submerged in plastic bags of glue, two blocks from the main police station. When the shift changed, five policemen emerged. One pointed his gun at the kids and told them to freeze. The kids ran and the cops caught a few, grabbed the bags of glue and literally started to pour it over their heads and into their eyes. Why? Because the kids would have to shave their heads to get the glue off and a shaved head indicates that you’re a criminal.
Nahaman pushed the policemen’s hands away, and they took this as an affront. They grabbed him and threw him to the ground and they kicked the dickens out of him—a thirteen-year-old boy against four grown men. He doubled over, screaming, and they kicked him unconscious. He lost control of his bladder. He had six broken ribs. There was bruising over 60 percent of his body.
His liver had burst.
Meanwhile, Francisco was hiding underneath a car watching, and when the cops took off, he called an ambulance. But the ambulance never arrived—they didn’t believe the kids. The kids thought Nahaman was dead. And to show you that part of their reality is to accept death as part of life on the street, they just went off to a park and went to sleep for a few hours.
When they woke up, they flagged a police car, who called an ambulance. They thought the boy was just intoxicated, so they put him under observation. By coincidence one of our social workers was in the hospital when Nahaman happened to regain consciousness and he told her what happened. She called the doctor and they found one and a half liters of blood in his abdomen and evidence of brain damage. He went into convulsions, suffered for ten days, and then he died.
Looking back on it, I realize Casa Alianza was in bed with the wrong people. We started out just offering food and shelter—but that was naive. I keep thinking of a priest in Brazil who said, "When I feed the hungry, they call me a hero; when I ask why the people are hungry, they call me a Communist." It is a noble task to feed the hungry (and quite honestly it would be more comfortable just to feed them!) but as an agency we have matured into asking why the children are hungry and why they are being abused and murdered.
When Francisco said the men who killed Nahaman were policemen, our first reaction was we’ve got to do something, but then the brain starts to rationalize all the reasons why you shouldn’t: it’s very dangerous, this is Guatemala, people get killed, there’s a certain moral dilemma. But then you see Nahaman laying out there, and the path is so clear. Or is it?
We spoke with ten other children’s advocacy groups and decided we should call for a meeting with the police: but only two groups showed up. It was the beginning of the realization that this was going to be a long, lonely road. And while I can understand why people didn’t want to raise their voices, it would have made it a damn sight easier if they did. When it’s just one organization that’s crying out, then you become very vulnerable. We started getting phone calls and death threats. And as we started pushing more and more, the crisis center itself was attacked.
It was mid-morning when a BMW with no license plates and polarized windows came to the crisis center in the middle of Guatemala City. Three men with machine guns went to the gate, asked for me by name, and said, "We’ve come to kill him." The guard was terrified, and said I wasn’t there. They got back in the vehicle, and came back down the street and opened fire with machine guns. Thank God none of the kids was shot. When something like that happens, you call the police—funny in this case. So the police came very quickly and they took away all the bullets. They took away all the evidence. It shows how naive we were. When Covenant House in New York heard about the incident, they sent me a bulletproof jacket. It had a money-back guarantee, if for any reason it didn’t work!
One of the greatest favors the perpetrators of this violence did for us was to spray our building with machine-gun fire because it was tangible evidence that we were doing something that affected interests. We were protecting children but there was something more here than met the eye. We were challenging the status quo, the way Guatemala had for decades operated, challenging the assumption that if a man had the gun and the uniform, he could get away with murder—literally.
Street kids aren’t easy. When you see a kid who’s been beaten or has a black eye or bullet holes in him, and he’s not crying, then serious emotional damage has happened to that kid. If you start to show your feelings, you start to show what they perceive to be weakness. But when they assume the risk to love you, that’s very personal.
The proof of it is that the most difficult thing for kids when they come into our program is a hug. Often it’s the first time there’s an honest sign of affection—with nothing expected in return. What we’re trying to do is give children back their childhood—if it’s not too late.
I truly dream of a world in which children will not have to suffer. We may not reach that between today and tomorrow, but at least there will be fewer kids on the street.
Speak Truth to Power (Umbrage, 2000)