The NI Interview
Richard Swift meets an outspoken advocate for Guatemala’s street kids.
‘He was the first kid I’ve ever seen dead.’ Bruce Harris draws a slow breath and says, only half seriously, that if he knew then what he knew now he might never have continued his risky work with Guatemala’s street kids. The death of Jorge Nahaman marked a watershed for Harris and his fellow workers at Covenant House, an advocacy centre for street children in Guatemala City. Jorge was kicked to death by four policemen on 4 March 1990. ‘His death had a tremendous impact on us and on the other street kids,’ says Harris. ‘After that we started documenting the violence and prosecuting the perpetrators.’
It wasn’t long before the threats started. ‘They came looking for me and they sprayed our centre with machine-gun fire. I had to move my family to Costa Rica. Now I go back every two or three weeks, rattle some cages and run like hell.’
Harris, a blunt, sandy-haired middle-aged American, recalls how things have changed from his first days in Guatemala. ‘A number of our staff were beaten up by the police and one was even murdered by the military police. It used to be when one of the kids mentioned Casa Alianza [Covenant House] it would raise ire. Now it offers some protection, not out of respect but out of fear of the fuss we might create.’
Harris is quick to credit international pressure with stopping police harassment of Covenant House in Guatemala. ‘They know we are not by ourselves. That’s why we have survived.’ He gives full credit to individual letter writers in the North. ‘If it weren’t for Amnesty International supporters I wouldn’t be alive today. It may seem naive to think your little letter will have any effect as you sit there in your garden in Dorset or wherever. But each letter makes street kids a little less vulnerable.’
Harris is under no illusions as to how much can be achieved. ‘Guatemala City is divided into 15 zones,’ he explains. ‘We’ve only worked in four but we’ve initiated 195 law suits and are suing 123 policemen and 48 members of the military for the torture and murder of children.’
‘Policemen see themselves as teachers trying to give tough lessons to the kids,’ Harris says. ‘Then it just gets out of control. It was easier to kill the kids than to rehabilitate them. And it could be done with relative impunity. Recently, though, there’s been a shift. Now, because of our work, the police have stopped murdering street children. Instead it’s the country’s 14,000 private security police who are doing the killing: 1994 was the worst year ever. And because they are private the government washes its hands of any responsibility.’
The blunt statistics trip easily off Harris’s lips. ‘There are 100 million street children in the world and 40 million of those are in Latin America. If that many people were in one country they’d have a seat at the UN. Instead they are ignored. The law is a luxury in Guatemala, but without a legal aid office to advocate for the kids there might as well be no law at all. Right now the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child is just a paper tiger.’
Harris identifies machismo as one key to why there are so many street children in Guatemala. ‘A man’s children are everything but other people’s kids are nothing,’ he says. ‘We don’t use the word poverty, its too passive. Rather we use the term “economic violence” to describe what’s happening to the kids. Initially they survive by washing cars, begging or doing little jobs. Later they get into stealing and prostitution. Addiction to shoe glue and paint thinner is also a problem.’
Harris calls these intoxicants ‘poor people’s drugs’ and believes they are a pragmatic response to the hunger and cold of the streets. But his face clouds with anger as he talks about the source of some of these drugs: HB Fuller, a US company based in St. Paul, Minnesota. ‘They sell a cheap toxic shoe glue,’ Harris snaps, ‘which is basically a narcotic that can’t even be sold in North America. It’s widely available in Latin America even though there are non-toxic alternatives. Street children buy it and that’s a huge market.’ HB Fuller has 15 per cent of their sales in Latin America and 26 per cent of their global profits. ‘If half the street kids in Latin America sniff glue, that’s 20 million consumers using half a gallon a month. Ten million gallons of glue: who wants to loose that market? We’ve asked them to stop, begged them. But if they won’t, damn it, we’ll go for the jugular. We’ve already got one wrongful death suit against them in Texas on behalf of a street kid in Guatemala who died from inhaling.’
Since Guatemala’s Covenant House opened up in the mid-1980s other organizations to help street kids have sprung up there and elsewhere in Latin America. But Harris is candid about the limited effects such organizations can have. ‘Forty million kids are not going to be cared for by 100 NGOs. We need to pressurize Latin American governments to take responsibility. But these children are not a priority and never will be as long as they’re seen as just trash to be hidden away.’
You can contact Bruce Harris at Casa Alianza, Apartado 2704, Guatemala City, Guatemala.
©Copyright: New Internationalist 1995