The screaming and shouting had been attracting a crowd near the corner of Avenida Copacabana and Rua Sao Paulo. Breaking out into a slow-paced jog, I approached the corner of the building as a small child in tattered clothes ran past me. He fled off into the distance and vanished into a crowd of pedestrians. My dark curiosity continued to draw me around the corner and into the commotion.
With bare, bloodied feet slamming against the broken glass on the concrete, dozens of children scattered like roaches from the abandoned building. Crying, cowering, and throwing rocks at the police, they scurried along the block as the men tried to grab hold of them. One of the street kids’ only sanctuaries had been discovered the by local community, and it was time for them to leave.
It looked as if someone had discovered a rats’ nest and they were shaking it up to get all of the pests out. In the streets of Rio de Janiero, Brazil, that’s exactly what it was – exterminators getting rid of the unwanted pests.
As the crowd of spectators grew, the police began to control their tempers. A few of the older and larger kids were whacked with small clubs, while the rest were left to flee down the street towards the shanties that loomed in the mountains above us. There would be no exterminations today, but the children knew that when the sun went down, the wolves would be out to get them. As I went to sleep that night to the symphony of gunfire, I wondered how many of those children would wake up dead.
More than a half-million children sleep beneath the arms of Christ the Redeemer in Rio de Janeiro. They run the gamut from runaways to orphans to toddlers fleeing abusive parents. With few options, the children resort to whatever it takes to survive. Sleeping in the parking lots of the Mercedes dealerships and eating out of the garbage of the five-star hotels, they wabble the streets like lost and abandoned animals. In the quest for survival, the children form small gangs and bands for protection and companionship. Sharing horror stories about narrow escapes from armed men, they tell each other new ways to make money and bandage each other’s wounds with dirty napkins found in the gutter. Quite too often, they bury one of their friends in an unmarked grave.
It’s perfectly logical to turn to crime in such desperate situations. Stealing to eat, some children advance in their deeds, from armed robbery to murder-for-hire. If only by sheer numbers, they threaten to tear the city apart, and there are those who refuse to sit by and watch. There are an average of 1,200 children murdered every year on the streets of Rio. They are called "pivettes" (little farts), "undesirables," "trash;" they are hunted down, tortured and killed by the city’s mysterious death squads. It is widely known that many business owners and police plan an active role in the squads, which pick off the children in their sleep like flies.
The average price to have a "street urchin" killed: a mere $70.
In Ipanema, the mutilated body of a 5-year-old boy is found wrapped up in a rug. Not far from the scene a boy walks into a hospital, bleeding from the groin. His penis had been cut off.
When city workers went to unclog a drain during a recent flood, they found a young girl with a slit throat. Ask anyone about the Candelaria Massacre, and they walk away. Rio would rather you forget about that time a group of armed men fired upon 70 sleeping children outside of a church. It’s a picture that wouldn’t look too good on a postcard.
At the young age of 11, Jao is the head of his family. He and his two younger sisters live in an abandoned chopperia which had been vacant since the owner was sent to prison for murder. I could look into Jao’s eyes and see the cold, hard stare of a war veteran. It was the look of a boy who had seen far too much in his short life. The two girls do what they can during the day to scavenge food from dumpsters in the backs of hotels and restaurants, while Jao does other things that he would rather not tell me about. Tonight was a special night though, as Daniella, the older sister, had found a few half-eaten hamburgers, a stale loaf of bread, and a half-full pint of beer.
As their aching bodies grow weary, under the cover of darkness Jao and his two sisters creep back to the shack. The two girls cuddle in the corner on a stolen beach blanket, as Jao peeks through a crack in the wall at oncoming pedestrians. He knows that their lives depend on his suspicions. All across the city, beneath the view of Christ, sleep the hundreds of thousands of homeless children. It is not just the poverty and loneliness that haunt children like Jao. It is that the city wants them dead.