DUQUE DE CAXIAS, Brazil — Cleiton, 12, used to steal from the stores in a shopping gallery near the center of Duque de Caxias, one of the grimy, violent suburbs on the sprawling northern outskirts of Rio de Janeiro. He belonged to the ragged legion of street kids who live by their wits and sometimes die by the gun.
Cleiton's killers caught up with him one night last January as he slept on a sidewalk near the gallery. A boy called A.G., who knew Cleiton, tells the story in a few words.
"He was sleeping," A.G. said, "and they filled his face with bullets."
Cleiton's death was not an isolated incident. Hundreds of deprived and delinquent Brazilian minors are killed every year.
According to people who monitor the situation, an alarming number of youngsters are killed by "extermination groups"--death squads bent on cleaning up crime-plagued areas.
Death squads have been at work for years in Brazil, but concern has risen in the past year because of the number of youngsters being killed, not only in Rio but also in other urban areas, including Sao Paulo and Recife.
Generally, young people are too frightened to talk about the situation, but A.G., a thin, dark boy with shy eyes and fluffy curls, agreed reluctantly to meet a reporter if two women he trusts, a Roman Catholic nun and a social worker, could be present.
They met in a church-sponsored center where street children can come for a free meal, a warm shower, basic schooling and kind encouragement. A.G., in a soiled blue soccer shirt, faded shorts and rubber sandals, kept his eyes on the table in front of him and fiddled with a piece of plastic tape as he talked.
"Everyone is afraid," he said. He said he had known "a heap" of youngsters killed in Duque de Caxias. One was Luciano, 16, picked up by his killers in January and shot in the head. His body was dumped on a hill behind the cathedral.
"He robbed stores," A.G. said of Luciano. "During the day he would study the store, and at night he would go in through a window and clean it out."
Two weeks after Luciano's death, gunmen killed his friend Ademir, 16. "He also robbed," A.G. said.
There is no doubt, he insisted, about who the killers work for. "The store owners pay them to kill us," he said.
A.G. has slept in the streets for 11 of his 16 years. He said the killers almost got him when he was 13.
"I was asleep, and they threw me into a car," he recalled. "They took me to the valao (an open sewage canal that runs through Duque de Caxias), and told me to jump in. I jumped and fell down in the dirt. Then I got up and ran, and they fired a shot that hit me in the leg."
He showed a small scar below his right knee where he said the bullet grazed him.
"I felt the pain," he said, "and I went running to the train station and the railroad police. They protected me."
Sister Beatriz Semiano listened as the boy talked, and she confirmed the dangers he described.
"He lives in the street, he sleeps in the street, and he is threatened with death," she said. "It is a terrible problem in Brazil."
Sister Beatriz and others who are concerned about the killing say the problem has its roots in urban poverty, antiquated laws, police corruption and ineffective systems for providing child welfare and criminal justice.
To survive, many street children turn to petty crime. By the time they reach their teens, some are involved in serious crime: drugs, burglary, armed robbery.
By law, offenders under the age of 18 cannot be brought to trial, and few are held for long at low-security detention centers. Some simply walk away, and some are let out because of overcrowding.
Merchants, driven to desperation by robberies, hire private security guards, many of them off-duty or former policemen, who take the law into their own hands and eliminate criminals of all ages.
In some slums, drug gangs provide security for merchants, killing robbers and thieves. The gangs fight one another, too, and sometimes kill their own people for violating strict codes of loyalty and secrecy.
Often it is hard to say who is behind a killing, a gang or an extermination group. Wolmer do Nascimento, a coordinator for the National Movement for Street Boys and Girls, which works with abandoned children in several Brazilian cities, said there are 10 groups, "more or less," at work in Duque de Caxias.
Tiana Se, who is also a coordinator for the movement, said that death squads hired to eliminate thieves and muggers from tourist districts of Rio--Copacabana and Ipanema--often dump their victims' bodies in the northern suburbs.
Se, a public schoolteacher with children of her own, said the killers of juvenile delinquents "are applauded because society says they are bandits--nothing can be done with them."
"The thing is getting worse all the time," she said. "The number of deaths is increasing."
Official statistics are generally imprecise and incomplete, but several recent studies show that a significant number of youngsters are being killed and that the problem is spreading.