Lost Boys

updated 10/04/1993 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 10/04/1993 AT 01:00 AM EDT

ANDRE MACHADO DIDN'T KNOW HOW LONG HE HAD BEEN asleep when loud shouts awakened him in the early morning hours of July 23. A wily, tough kid who has been living on the streets of Rio de Janeiro for five years, Machado, 13, was huddled under a blanket with a few other boys on top of a newsstand in front of the Candelária Church, in Rio's business district.

"Are you Russo?" he heard a man yell.

"I don't know Russo," replied Marco Antônio da Silva, 19, the unofficial leader of the dozens of homeless kids camped out in front of the church. He was lying; he did know Russo. That was his own nickname on the street.

Machado peeked over the newsstand roof to get a better view. He saw a tall man pointing a pistol at Russo. "It won't do you any good lying," the man said. Three other men were holding guns on some of the nearby boys. Then the shooting began.

"He shot Russo in the head," says Machado. "And then the others began shooting. Everybody screamed and ran. We just kept running and running."

In all, eight street kids, ranging in age from 11 to 19, were slain. Six were murdered in the midnight massacre; two others from the Candelária group had been abducted earlier and were shot that same evening. Yvonne Bezerra de Mello, 46, a wealthy sculptor who is unofficial tia (aunt) to many of the children, rushed to the church to comfort the street kids who survived. After the bodies of the victims were removed, says De Mello, authorities investigating the massacre did not slick around. "We had no protection at all," she says. "The assassins could have come back. What is this country doing to our children?"

The answer is: slaughtering them in increasing numbers. The July 23 attacks were not isolated incidents. Last year more than 1,500 youths, most of them street kids, were killed in Brazil—more than four a day. In July alone, 52 adolescents were murdered in Rio. Many of the deaths are attributed to vigilante groups composed mainly of on-or off-duty military policemen. Col. José Carlos Machado, a military police officer in Pernambuco in northeast Brazil, explains that often local businessmen pay policemen to execute street kids. "With what we earn, it is a great temptation for the men," he says. "I still don't understand why they kill children, though. They can't earn that much for killing an adolescent."

Many Brazilians believe the military police are just doing their job. Officials claim that meninos da rua—the tens of thousands of homeless children who roam Brazil's cities and beaches doing odd jobs and begging—are a growing scourge because they also rob shopkeepers and tourists or deal drugs. Public opinion polls show that 16 percent of Rio residents approved of the Candelária killings. "Society sees these children as dangerous animals," says Rio sociologist Herbert de Souza. "And that's why they want to eliminate them."

Indeed, a few days after the massacre, a call-in show on Rio's popular CBN radio station was dedicated to street kids. The callers unanimously supported the death squads. One woman said her son had been murdered in downtown Rio, supposedly by a street kid. "They took from me the only thing I had," she said. "They deserved to die." When the host of the show attempted to defend the meninos, an irate listener phoned in and called them devils.

For a child born into a family already living in wretched poverty, the streets offer a sort of freedom. Walter de Almeida, 16, known as Dedinho (meaning "finger," because he was born with six fingers on his right hand), says he used to be beaten at home. When he met some street kids, he was fascinated by their apparent freedom. "They could do anything they wanted," he says. He left home at 13 and for two years spent his days getting high on glue, marijuana and cocaine, and robbing tourists. "Nine out of 10 kids on the street do drugs," says Dedinho. "We need an escape. We'll take anything to have fun." Eventually Dedinho got lucky: a group of fishermen on Copacabana Beach found him sleeping in one of their boats, took him in and taught him to fish. Dedinho now earns a steady living. His mother sometimes visits him, and he gives her fish, but the fishermen, Dedinho says, "are more like a family to me. And they never hit me."

Andre Machado has been less fortunate. One of 11 children, he used to live with his family in a small shack in Nova Iguaçu, a slum area on the outskirts of the city. "There wasn't enough food, so when I was small I started going to stores and restaurants and begging," he says. "My brothers and sisters did too."

He went to school for two years but dropped out. Several months ago he joined the Candelária group. "Home is worse than the street," he says. There is a fountain in front of the church, where the children bathe and play on sunny days, and plenty of restaurants nearby where he scrounges for food. At night, though, the area is deserted. "It can be scary at times," he says, "but I thought since we were in such a large group, nothing could happen. I thought we were safe here."

He was wrong. Maenado—who insists he never steals or does drugs—says that policemen have beaten him up three times at night for no reason. "They only hit us when nobody is watching," he says. "When you're sleeping on the street and you hear footsteps, you run. You don't even look."

Wagner dos Santos, 22, has also learned to fear for his life. An hour before the attack outside the church, he and two others had left Candelária to buy cigarettes. Four men in a beige Chevette (which, according to court documents, was also seen in front of the church during the midnight attack) shoved the three youths into the car. Someone jammed a gun against his forehead. "Then there was this loud explosion," he says—the sound of a gun going off against his head. Dos Santos woke up in a park about a mile from Candelária the corpses of two boys who were known only by their nicknames. Gambazinho ("baby opossum") and Linguado ("flounder," because he was so skinny) lying a short distance away. Dos Santos suffered three wounds to his face and one to his chest; a bullet is still lodged between his neck and his spine. Doctors say that since the bullet is surrounded by nerves, it is safer to leave it in, but Dos Santos has suffered no permanent physical damage.

Thanks in part to Dos Santos' eyewitness testimony in court, four men have been arrested in connection with the Candelária killings—and three have been identified as military policemen. Although military policemen rarely receive prison sentences for killing someone, publicity over the Candelária massacre may result in convictions.

And Dos Santos—who is temporarily under police protection at the Rio Firemen's Hospital—fears that he will be killed in retaliation once he returns to the street. But he has nowhere else to go. Abandoned as a little boy, he has lived on the streets since he was 14. Until he was shot, he survived by washing cars in the center of Rio, earning $4 to $6 a day. He says he has no idea why he was targeted by the killers. "I never stole anything," he says. "I respect everybody. I don't get in fights. I don't have any enemies. I hung out with the other street kids because I had no home. Most of them are not bad people, but everybody thinks we're marginais [criminals]."

Not everybody. Some citizens and members of human-rights organizations are rallying to help the meninos. The Candelária church has become a gathering point for protesters and parents looking for long-lost children. After the massacre, a large wooden cross sat outside the church. Twice it was stolen and twice replaced. Until they too were stolen, clothes of the victims hung from a line around the square, and people have left flowers, statues of saints. Offerings of macumba (black magic) were placed alongside the cross, which is still there today. For an hour each morning, De Mello—who brings her adopted group of meninos food and is teaching some to read and write—holds a vigil at the church. "If we were to lake care of the poor in our own neighborhoods," she says, "there wouldn't be any street children."

Perhaps that will happen. But like many of his fellow Brazilians, Luis Azevedo, 60, a cab driver, is skeptical. "Look at the center of town now," says Azevedo. "You see hardly any street kids. If the only thing they will listen to is violence, then it must be so."

ELIZABETH GLEICK
JOHN MAIER in Rio de Janeiro

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