Safe Havens

updated 04/02/2001 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 04/02/2001 01:00AM

When Bruce Harris first set eyes on 14-year-old Demaris, a Managua, Nicaragua, prostitute, the sullen teenager was two months pregnant, lying listlessly in a cardboard box and numbing life's pains by sniffing glue. Harris spent more than an hour crouched by her side, trying to persuade her to go with him to a nearby shelter where she would be given medical care. But Demaris, who had fled to the city from a remote village after being beaten by her parents, refused to speak or even make eye contact.

Discouraged, but determined to return soon, Harris and two staff members reluctantly moved on. But they had gone only a few feet when they came upon Emilio, 19, his leg badly swollen and discolored. Though he was known to be a thief—he had broken his leg leaping from a balcony during a burglary attempt—Harris quickly took him to a nearby hospital. Learning that the facility had no material for casts, Harris made another instant decision. "We'll bring Emilio back to the crisis center and clean him up," he said. "He can sleep, and we can pick up some plaster of paris on the way to the hospital tomorrow."

Bruce Harris's work is measured in such small, vital victories. For the past 11 years he has served as the executive director of Casa Alianza, the Latin-American arm of New York City-based Covenant House, which is dedicated to rescuing abused, drug-addicted and abandoned children. From his base in San Jose, Costa Rica, Harris directs more than 700 full-time and volunteer staffers in five Latin-American countries—Costa Rica, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico and Nicaragua. To address the physical and emotional needs of the most desperate of the region's 59,000 homeless children, he heads such programs as a 30-bed drug rehab facility in Guatemala, an 80-bed crisis center in Honduras and a hospice in Mexico for children dying of AIDS.

As the sad story of Demaris suggests, he is not always successful, but his group does manage to serve 9,000 children a year. "Casa Alianza is not one program; it's 9,000," says the British-born Harris, 46, who spends much of his time in the field, rescuing children in need. "With every kid who comes off the street, we win. One kid at a time, that's the way it is."

For his work, Harris was awarded the prestigious international Olof Palme Prize in 1997, and last fall received the $1 million Conrad N. Hilton Humanitarian Award, the world's largest humanitarian prize, with which he plans to build a new crisis center in Managua. In addition, he is one of 51 heroic activists profiled in Kerry Kennedy Cuomo's recent book Speak Truth to Power: Human Rights Defenders Who Are Changing Our World. "Bruce is the foremost advocate for children's rights in Central America," says Kennedy Cuomo. "He is the genuine article."

But Harris has made plenty of enemies along the way. Not only does he care for desperate children, but he also attempts to put notorious pimps out of business and force governments to offer kids better protection. For instance, after learning in 1996 that Honduran youths were being picked up simply for being on the streets, only to be taken to adult jails where they were beaten and raped, Harris filed suit against 30 local judges and brought 120 writs of habeas corpus in order to free the young victims. And at a 1997 press conference in Guatemala, he publicly accused 18 lawyers of participating in an illegal adoption racket trading in stolen babies.

He has probably been most vocal in Costa Rica, where adult prostitution is legal and where a thriving international trade in child prostitution exists. He went underground to videotape a teen brothel for a local prosecutor and helped ABC's 20/20 produce a hidden-camera report on child streetwalkers. In addition he has lodged 270 criminal cases with the government, alleging sexual exploitation. For his troubles, Costa Rican President Miguel Angel Rodriguez has denounced him, and one local paper urged him to "abstain from participating in these types of negative reports," claiming that the publicity he generates serves to promote, not eliminate, child prostitution. "President Rodriguez has let it be known we're not welcome," says Harris.

Not that he lets that deter him. By way of explaining what drives him, Harris proffers a folder from his desk in San Jose. In it are photographs of young victims such as Felipe, whom Harris met when the 12-year-old was living in an alley in Guatemala City. Seven years later Harris saw Felipe again, this time in a morgue with 121 machete wounds inflicted by a drug dealer. Harris knows the exact number because he counted each one. "There are times when I've been very scared," he says. "I don't mind admitting that. By the same token, if we're scared, can you imagine how a kid feels?"

To date, Harris's efforts have led to more than 100 arrests—and almost as many convictions—despite tremendous obstacles. "He's probably the bravest guy I know," says Thomas Stroock, former U.S. ambassador to Guatemala. "He's got military men in at least six Latin-American countries looking for him, but he's got the guts of a bear."

Harris himself came from a world as distant from the horrors he exposes as one could imagine. Growing up in England's Dorset countryside, he was the youngest of three sons of personnel manager John Harris, now 78, and his late wife, Jennifer, a painter. After high school he worked as a postman, then as a truck driver, until his mother heard about the hyper-wholesome American touring choral group Up with People. She urged her son to apply for a job, and Harris was made an emcee. Traveling the world, his outlook changed forever. It amazed him that the desperation he witnessed in Mexico, for example, could exist next to such enormous affluence in America. "The country was so close to this decadence, and yet it was so poor," he says. "I'd never seen poverty like that. It was that sort of injustice that opened my eyes."

Returning to school for his bachelor's degree in international studies, he volunteered as an intern in Mexico with Save the Children, a U.S.-based organization that sponsors community aid projects around the world. It was a time when civil war in Guatemala was driving thousands of Indian refugees into Mexico to avoid slaughter. Yet Mexicans, despite their own poverty, welcomed them. "They were accepted by people who had nothing to give," recalls Harris, inspired by what he witnessed. After earning a graduate degree in international management, he returned to Save the Children in Mexico, later serving in Bolivia. By 1989, steeped in Latin culture, he signed on with Covenant House to head its Latin-American operations.

Today, when not traveling, Harris spends time at the airy three-bedroom house in a San Jose suburb that he shares with his Bolivian wife, Patricia Mendoza, 39, whom he met when she was working as an accountant at the U.S. embassy in La Paz in 1985. They have two sons, Chris, 9, and Danny, 12, both bilingual. "He's really good with the kids," says Patricia. "When he's home I say, 'Okay, Bruce, take over.' "

Harris realizes his frequent absences are hard on his own kids. "I apologize to them and I try to make them aware why I'm away a lot," he says. But they also understand why it's necessary. The proof is as clear as the story of 16-year-old Ricardo. Neatly combed and cleanly dressed, he proudly reports that after his stay in a Casa Alianza crisis center in Managua, he no longer wastes his days sniffing glue on park benches; instead he's studying to become a mechanic. Or 13-year-old Juan Carlos, who last winter, as he had for years, lived on the streets of Managua begging from tourists. After eight months at Casa Alianza's transition center he is once again living with his family and attending school.

For Harris, personal sacrifice is far outweighed by these accomplishments. "We should look at our own kids and ask if we'd want them to live on the streets," he says. "Then you have to say that you don't want any child to live like that."

Susan Schindehette
Don Sider in Managua and Auriana Koutnik in San Jose

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