TIJUANA — For almost two years, Guillermo Alvarado has been a kind of Pied Piper of this border city, roaming its alleyways and avenues, often with a soccer ball in hand, in search of ninos de la calle-- street kids.
Working with a colleague and minimal funding from a United Nations grant, Alvarado, who is a social worker, has gained the confidence of dozens of the city's mistrustful street urchins, providing them with a friendly voice, literacy lessons and guidance that may help them rise above the mean streets.
Now, after a police raid at the program's shelter, Alvarado fears that his progress with the youngsters is in jeopardy.
Accusations of Harassment
Alvarado said that the police arrived at the shelter on the evening of Oct. 12. He said they had been directed there by an 11-year-old resident who had been accused of stealing a guitar. The youth, Alvarado said, told police that he lived at the shelter, adding, "Everybody there steals."
Alvarado acknowledged that some of the youths--including the 11-year-old--do steal, although such behavior can result in them being barred from the shelter. "Stealing is a way of life on the streets," Alvarado noted.
When they arrived, Alvarado said the officers told him the shelter was a "den of thieves." Officers searched the modest facility, arrested him and roughed him up, Alvarado said. He and four youths then present--among them a pregnant teen-ager--were taken into custody and held for 24 hours.
After being accused of, but never formally charged with, a host of crimes from drug trafficking to a planned bank robbery, Alvarado said he and the children were released. Alvarado said he was freed thanks to the intercession of friendly attorneys.
The case is now closed, but Alvarado fears that such incidents, if repeated, could threaten the novel street-kid program.
Now, he said he is considering filing a complaint against the police department, although first he would like to meet with officials to discuss the matter.
"I believe it's important that we be allowed to continue working with the children, even if we only reach a few," Alvarado said Monday at a news briefing. "These children don't respond to traditional forms of assistance. They resist authority."
The arrest, Alvarado claimed, was retribution for his role in a series of well-publicized allegations aimed at various police agencies here, including the Tijuana police. Last month, a human rights group presented evidence that alleged that the police had systematically tortured 100 minors who had been arrested as suspects in various crimes, mostly robberies. Alvarado was instrumental in the investigation.
"I think there's a definite connection" between the torture allegations and the arrest," said Alvarado, 24, who is known to many street children here as The Clown because of the role he assumes during impromptu street-theater scenes with children. "This shows that just as they arrest the children without reason, so they can do the same to adults."
Police Deny Allegations
Authorities have angrily denied the charges that they have tortured children. On Monday, however, police officials directed all questions about the Alvarado case to Eduardo Bravo Quintero, Tijuana's chief of police. Quintero remained unavailable for comment all afternoon. His deputy, Jose Nunez de Caceres, declined to comment.
Since his arrest, Alvarado said, the program's shelter--a sparsely furnished house near downtown--has been shut. Alvarado said he fears a return of the police. And what has happened to the 12 youths who were staying there?
"They're back on the streets, I'm afraid," Alvarado said.
Trouble May Continue
The shelter should be reopened this week, he said. However, Alvarado said he is concerned that police harassment may continue. "They can come back any time they want," he explained.
The shelter is part of a modestly funded but wide-ranging effort to assist the estimated 3,000-5,000 children who make their living on the streets here. The program, almost 2 1/2 years old, is financed with an annual grant of about $7,700 from the United Nations Children's Fund. Alvarado said he earns about $30 a week from the program, which stresses the youths' autonomy and independence and is based on a strategy that has been successful elsewhere in Latin America.
Alvarado said he is still shaken by the event--and worried about the future of his program.
"We would like to have good relations with the police, to work with them," Alvarado said. "I hope such an arrangement can be worked out."