issue 220 - June 1991
Child killer cops
The law is a child’s worst enemy on the streets
of Guatemala. Mary Durran reports.
A ring of delicate pink roses surrounds the modest grey plaque that marks the grave of Nahamán Carmona Lopez. ‘I only wanted to be a child – but they wouldn’t let me,’ reads the inscription.
The 13-year-old died of a ruptured liver 10 days after he was kicked senseless by four police officers. His crime? Sniffing glue and living out on the streets of Guatemala City. Nahamán was one of the 5,000 young people known as ‘street children’ in Guatemala. Aged between 5 and 18, the street children beg or steal to buy food and sniff glue to numb their pangs of hunger and to dull the cruel reality of their lives.
Bruce Harris was one of Nahamán’s few visitors in the intensive care unit of the hospital where he died. Harris is the director of the US charity Covenant House, an organization that runs rehabilitation programmes for street children. But the 35-year-old Briton finds that lately a greater part of his time has been devoted to pressing for the prosecutions of Nahamán’s killers and those of several other children. Most were killed by police officers who see the children as nuisances responsible for petty crime.
‘We now have a further 31 legal proceedings running against people charged with murder of street children. Of these 29 are police officers.’
Thanks to Harris’s efforts four police officers have now been sentenced to unprecedented prison terms of between 10 and 15 years for the murder of Nahamán. It was no easy task. The Guatemalan legal system’s inability to resolve cases where members of the military or security forces are involved is well known. Because of the Guatemalan Government’s lack of will to apply justice, Harvard University has recently suspended a legal programme whereby Harvard law students worked with the judicial authorities in Guatemala to solve political crimes.
In the case of Nahamán Carmona Lopez, Covenant House requested a list of all police officers on duty at the time and place the attack occurred. When the police presented the report the names of 10 officers were missing – including the four now convicted. These were eventually identified by witnesses.
Between January and June of 1990 over 40 street children died violent deaths in Guatemala City. Many were found with their faces disfigured and their bodies dismembered. The burning out of eyes and cutting off of ears is common. Bruce Harris believes that the police are responsible for at least 13 of these deaths and for the abuse and torture of a further 50.
To even hold such a belief is dangerous in Guatemala – a country where since 1967 over 40,000 have disappeared after being abducted by members of the security forces or plain clothes agents, and more than 100,000 killed. But to press for prosecutions of police officers is, in the words of one journalist, ‘almost suicidal’.
Harris has recently been publicly accused by Chief of Police Mario Paiz Bolaños of ‘violating the country’s laws’ and of carrying out an international campaign to discredit Guatemala ‘aided and abetted by Amnesty International’.
There has also been a spate of attacks against ‘street educators’ working with Covenant House who try to interest children in rehabilitation programmes. These educators know too much about what the police are up to and some have been subjected to beatings and attempted abductions. For their own safety they have had to stop working night shifts.
But the educators have no intention of keeping quiet. They take the line that publicity is the only protection. And actions such as those of Amnesty International members in Germany who sent 5,000 protest letters to the National Police in Guatemala about the murder of street children do make a difference.
‘We’re certain that we wouldn’t have got as far as we have in some cases if it weren’t for international pressure,’ said Harris. ‘But that pressure has to be kept up.’
The moment the world forgets the plight of Guatemalan street children it’s bad news for children like Nahamán Carmona Lopez.
Mary Durran works with the El Salvador and Guatemala Committees for Human Rights at 83 Margaret Street, London W1N 7HB.