homeless children's legal aid system: Casa Alianza/Covenant House

Tom Boland (wgcp@earthlink.net)
Fri, 24 Apr 1998 10:57:31 -0700 (PDT)

FWD 20 Apr 1998
Reply-To: "Casa Alianza - Regional Office" <casalnza@sol.racsa.co.cr>
           see also Casa Alianza/Covenant House Latin America



By W. E. Gutman

        Justice is not a "loophole." A right is not a "technicality."
Aggressive prosecution of adults who deny homeless children their
rights -- or breach them -- is not a capricious pursuit of law, as
some argue, but a valid statutory process. In societies where such
rights are curtailed or trampled, where existing constitutional
guarantees are habitually ignored or violated -- as has been the case
in Guatemala and Honduras -- homeless minors must not only find
shelter from the elements, they also require an advocate willing to
litigate against their tormentors, be they abusive parents, sexual
predators, unscrupulous policemen, corrupt magistrates, or sadistic
prison wardens. And, in cases of wrongful death, a child's family must
also be empowered to sue for indemnification.
        Vigorously upheld and taken for granted in developed nations, these
standards have assumed a discretionary character in much of the Third
World. Written into constitutional law and legitimized by penal codes,
these rights are often ignored or thwarted by Byzantine and inept
judicial processes.
        No one understands this better than Casa Alianza, an organization
that rehabilitates thousands of street children in Guatemala,
Honduras, Nicaragua and Mexico, champions their legal rights and takes
on mighty adversaries to defend them. It is this will and capacity to
go to bat for homeless children that distinguishes Casa Alianza, the
Latin American branch of New York-based Covenant House, from other
private relief agencies.
        "We don't seek revenge," says Casa Alianza Executive Director Bruce
Harris. "We seek justice and application of law. It is the least we
can do for the most deprived, persecuted and vulnerable elements of
        Pursuing violent police, identifying and prosecuting sex offenders,
and keeping tribunals honest, focused and accountable continues to be
one of the primary missions of Casa Alianza's Legal Aid system. In
Guatemala and Honduras, Casa Alianza has documented, investigated and
litigated over 540 criminal cases. More than 250 policemen, 40 members
of the military and dozens of others have been brought to justice on
charges of torture and murder of homeless children.
        "Despite painstaking research and incontrovertible evidence, and
because of blanket immunity, lawsuits against uniformed individuals
have been successful in fewer than five percent of the cases,"
Accustomed to Olympian battles but grateful for small victories,
Harris is encouraged by the conviction of 15 national policemen in
Guatemala and an equal number in Honduras. Casa Alianza has also
initiated 10 formal complaints against the governments of Guatemala
and Honduras with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, a
member of the Organization of American States. One case has been
remanded to the Inter-American Court. Other cases are pending
        Advocacy work has its price. The Casa Alianza shelter in Guatemala
City was sprayed with machine gun fire. Harris has been the object of
numerous death threats. The shelter in Tegucigalpa was threatened with
closure and its director faced expulsion. Staff and volunteers in both
countries have been periodically harassed and intimidated. Several
were severely beaten. A number had to seek shelter in Canada. These
recurring acts of hooliganism have inevitably caught the eye of
international organizations, including the U.N., Amnesty International
and the European Union. World attention has in turn emboldened Casa
Alianza's Legal Aid Offices to focus on endemic and recurring
contraventions of law: Crimes of violence against street children --
including torture and extra-judicial executions; illegal arrest and
detention in adult penal institutions; and sexual exploitation.
        It is perhaps the case of Nahaman Carmona Lopez, a 13-year-old
Salvadoran street child who was beaten to death by four policemen in
Guatemala eight years ago, that finally galvanized the world and
focused international scrutiny on the plight of street children. It
took almost three years to bring the culprits to justice. They were
eventually released on a technicality after serving brief sentences. A
dozen Guatemalan street children shared Nahaman's fate that year.
Hundreds have since been exterminated in unrelenting state-sponsored
campaigns against "vermin, parasites and criminals."
        Honduras has fared no better. "A dismal reflection of that
country's judicial system as a whole," according to a senior U.S.
State Department analyst, "Honduras's juvenile justice system has been
mired in chaos, corruption and impunity. It's a travesty." Despite
intense scrutiny by human rights monitors, abuses of authority,
illegal detentions of minors with adults and interrogation techniques
tantamount to torture continued unabated through the better part of
        The urgent need for a thoroughly documented, case-by-case chronicle
of brutality against homeless minors was recently filled with the
publication of Casa Alianza's 1997 Report On The Torture of Street
Children. Researched and compiled by the Legal Aid offices in
Guatemala and Honduras, the 124-page report covers 84 cases of abuse,
torture and murder. It also reviews hundreds of cases of illegal
detention of minors with adult felons in sordid penal institutions and
concomitant acts of violence against them at the hands of inmates and
prison personnel. The report describes the incidents, identifies the
victims, and names the perpetrators -- mostly members of State
security and private constabularies.  The legal ramifications and
outcome of each case are also summarized.
        The Guatemalan section covers 82 victims -- 31 of them murdered at
the hands of 52 National Police, 12 private security police and 14
military officers.  The Section on Honduras documents 33 cases
involving 63 victims -- 15 of them murdered -- and squarely lays
responsibility on 35 members of the FUSEP, the nine Supreme Court
magistrates who approved the "Auto Accordado" sanctioning the
unconstitutional jailing of children with adults, six judges, and
three prison directors, among others.
        Casa Alianza attorneys and Legal Aid personnel in Honduras report
that crimes against children by police have diminished and that a more
cordial dialogue with the authorities has helped foster greater
understanding. Relations with police are said to have improved
dramatically, resulting in more cooperation and trust. "Whereas we
were viewed as a threat and an embarrassment," explains Honduras Casa
Alianza director, Alvaro Conde, "we are now perceived as partners in a
common effort. As a result, arbitrary arrests have diminished and the
illegal incarceration of minors with adults appears to have ceased."
An ironic downside, according to Conde, is that there are now more
children in the streets. Relations with the community, however, remain
strained and random acts of violence at the hands of private guards
and disgruntled citizens persist. "Street children are still viewed as
'pernicious' to society. A backlash is always feared."
        Another major preoccupation for Casa Alianza's Legal Aid offices is
the sexual exploitation of children, "one of the most serious of human
rights violations as it compromises physical, emotional and moral
health," according to Harris. The problem is so acute that Casa
Alianza is now cooperating with the FBI and the Child Exploitation
Center and Obscenity Section of the U.S. Justice Dept. in an attempt
to trap a growing number of U.S. nationals who sexually abuse or rape
Central American street children.

        Casa Alianza is now also working closely with Interpol. According to
Maj. Marco Tulio Palma Rivera and Lt. Roger Osmin Bardales, of the
Tegucigalpa Office, "young Honduran girls are being trafficked and
sold to brothels in Guatemala, El Salvador and Mexico." The officials
claim that this traffic coincides with a "growing number of
disappearances of 13- and 14-year-old females from the capital, San
Pedro Sula, El Progresso and La Ceiba."
        "Once clandestine and inconspicuous," Maj. Palma points out, "child
prostitution and pornography -- often involving 7- to 11-year old
children -- are a growing phenomenon in Central America and part of a
wider narcotrafficking and money laundering network. Intelligence
shared by Casa Alianza has been invaluable in coordinating
search-and-rescue operations and delivering some of these children
from the clutches of criminals and pedophiles."
        Concurring, Harris vows that "as the commercial sexual exploitation
of children takes on the dimensions of international trade, Casa
Alianza must also globalize its actions against the perpetrators of
this growing scourge. By working with the FBI, Interpol and other
agencies, we will become even more effective in trapping and
prosecuting adults who prey on and exploit vulnerable children."

__________________________________________________ W. E. Gutman is a
veteran journalist and a frequent contributor. He is currently on
assignment in Central America.

Casa Alianza/Covenant House Latin America
SJO 1039
PO Box 025216, Miami FL 33102-5216  USA

Tel. in Costa Rica: +506-253-5439 or 253-6338
Fax in Costa Rica:  +506-224-5689

Home page address: http://www.casa-alianza.org

"In their little worlds in which children have their existence,
there is nothing so finely perceived and so finely felt,
as injustice...."

Charles Dickens, "Great Expectations"
Streetkid-L Resource Page:  http://www.jbu.edu/business/sk.html
Listowner: jwalenci@acc.jbu.edu, John Brown University


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