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Brazil Bemoans Its Homeless Children : Latin America: A weekend killing highlights national crisis. About 200,000 youngsters live on the streets.

August 03, 1994|RON HARRIS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

RIO DE JANEIRO — In this city where an average of 30 people are shot, stabbed or beaten to death daily, murder is commonplace, but this one touched a particularly sensitive nerve:

Jose Carlos Madeira Serrano, 64, the former director of the nation's Central Bank and the man once responsible for managing its foreign debt, had been shot in the back early Sunday in an attempted carjacking as he was dropping off two women at their downtown apartment.

As much as the victim's celebrity captured public and media attention, the description of his assailant--reportedly a 12-year-old, one of the nation's growing number of homeless children--excited even more notice.

Underscoring the issues, the high-profile shooting came almost exactly one year after an infamous incident in which eight homeless children--the youngest was 8--were shot to death by off-duty police officers as they slept downtown, across the street from Candelaria Church, a prominent tourist attraction.

Serrano's death focused the public's attention on an unresolved crisis: what to do about the growing criminal threat and national embarrassment of children who are forced into the streets, many of them preying on the city's 12 million residents to survive?

Police arrested Serrano's suspected killer Tuesday. It turned out that he was not 12 but 16; not homeless, but living with his parents and siblings in a lower-middle-class apartment on the outskirts of town.

Still, the killing, coming as it did just days after the anniversary of the "Candelaria Massacre," has sharpened sentiments regarding a problem that has aroused some to take matters in their own hands: They have hired death squads to hunt down and kill homeless children.

Friends and former government officials focused on the issue of the homeless children at Serrano's funeral, blaming his death on the inability of government officials to address the children's crisis.

"It wasn't a boy who killed Serrano--he just pulled the trigger," said Reis Velloso, the nation's former minister of planning. "What happened Sunday could happen to me tomorrow. The authorities will only finish with this tragic situation when the people take to the streets to protest against all this."

"We live in social crisis," echoed Carlos Brandao, a former president of the Central Bank whose brother-in-law was killed four years ago by a 12-year-old in Sao Paulo. "We haven't had any economic growth in the past 13 years, and we haven't invested in health and education."

But increasingly, sympathy is shifting away from the children, say prosecutors, judges and children's advocates.

Yvonne Bezerra de Mello, a wealthy artist who daily delivers food and medicine to homeless children, said many upper-class Brazilians have never approved of her efforts but that, since Sunday, they have been spurred to express themselves with unprecedented vehemence.

"I was in the street giving out food, and people in cars would stop and say, 'You should have been the one that was killed,' " De Mello said. "People would stop and call me a bitch and a whore and say that I'm just protecting a bunch of bandits."

"Unfortunately, the culture of a large portion of our society feels that way," said Juvenile Justice Siro Darlan. "They put the guilt on the children, which is much easier than assuming the responsibility themselves."

While in many nations the debate over juvenile justice centers on whether to provide more services or more punishment, in Brazil the government position, say critics, has been to neglect both ends.

On the one hand, the country does little to provide for its children, they say: Nationally, six of every 100 children will die before the age of 1, and in the impoverished northeast region, the figure jumps to 25. More than 7 million children never finish grade school.

There is no foster care system. Consequently, many children who face intolerable situations at home drift into the streets; there they turn to robbery, theft, prostitution and drug trafficking in order to survive.

About 200,000 children live on the streets, which often represent liberation from despair and abuse at home, says Lauro Monteiro, a pediatrician and director of the Brazilian Assn. for the Protection of Infants and Adolescents.

"Boys go to the street sometimes at 5 or 10 years of age because what exists for them is not really a home," Monteiro said. "They have survived the first years of life in total abandonment. By 10 or 12 years of age, they've gone through an intense education in violence."

Most beg or sell peanuts or candy, but many are like Leo, 14, who has been living on the streets of Rio de Janeiro since he was 8 years old.

"I steal for a living," said Leo, who claims he was sleeping nearby a year ago when his friends were murdered in the Candelaria attack. "We rob the people coming out of the banks."

Death is a constant danger.

"We know we're going to die soon," said Jorgionho, a 16-year-old street dweller.

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