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Kevin M. Ryan Headshot

Stop the Murders of Street Kids

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In the course of the last three weeks, we lost three of our young people in Honduras, each found murdered. They were among the homeless, trafficked and exploited children and youth who live with us at Casa Alianza Honduras, Covenant House's programs in Tegucigalpa. We have no news on who may have committed these heinous crimes.

First came news of the boys: Julio, just 14, and Pablo, 19, on the cusp of adulthood. Their bodies were thrown near the highway, abandoned to the elements like road-killed animals. Then last weekend, one of our girls who had spent a year in our Querubines home for victims of sex trafficking and exploitation was found raped and murdered in the middle of the capitol.

Julio lived at Casa Alianza until days before he was shot. He had been in and out of the shelter about ten times in the past two years, and was suffering from the instability of life on the street, but he kept returning to us, somehow summoning hope for his future. Our National Director, Menin, noted that Julio had seemed sad, and made an appointment to meet with him, but the boy was killed two days after the appointment was made. The other young victim, Pablo, had stayed with us years ago. Their murders plague our in-country team, who attended the burials of the children they had worked so hard to protect.

If Covenant House believed in cursing the darkness, you would hear hundreds of us swearing like sailors about the conditions homeless kids face Honduras:

--1,976 Hondurans under age 23 were killed between January 2002 and January 2006.

--In just eight months last year, there were 779 killings of people that age group.

--Nearly two-thirds of the population lives below the poverty line and 3000 unaccompanied minors leave Honduras each year in search of a new life.

--Exploitative traffickers are quick to take advantage of street kids and migrant kids.

--Cheap and addictive glue is readily available for kids to sniff, and become addicted to.

--Widespread gangs are ready to take in kids with no family ties, and exploit them, turning them into criminals.

--Police and security forces rough up and even kill children with impunity.

In fact, since 1997, more than 6,000 young people have been killed in the country, and security officials were suspected in more than a third of these murders. Trials are held for only about 5 percent of violent crimes. Political unrest following the forcible removal and exile of the nation's president in 2009 has not made the streets any safer for children.

What makes grownups want to kill a street kid? What could they possibly gain from murdering some of the most vulnerable and impoverished children on the planet? The mind cannot comprehend.

I am heading back to Honduras in a few weeks, and I'm glad to report that Covenant House and its Latin American branch, Casa Alianza, is lighting candles there, while describing -- and yes, cursing -- the darkness.

In Tegucigalpa, we care for about 180 boys and girls every night, and also provide special care for girls who have been victims of sexual exploitation, and boys with addiction problems. (In interviews with 143 homeless children in Honduras, all of them had at least one sexually transmitted disease, and nearly half had been abused by family members. The mind still can't comprehend.)

And to push the darkness back further, in the past year we've trained more than 1,550 judges, police officers, and immigration officials about ways to fight human trafficking, and other issues pertaining to youth.

We are also working on legislation to regulate the availability of solvents, which are far too easy to get, and lead to health problems and addiction in street children, and we are advocating for children and adolescents with AIDS to have access to health services. Our legal team is trying to persuade the legislature and courts to increase the punishments for sexual criminals, and we have demanded action over the growing number of extra-judicial executions of children and young people.

The upheaval following the coup, widespread corruption, hostility towards protesters, journalists and human rights workers, and a thriving drug trafficking industry have created a toxic stew in Honduras, which has the highest homicide rate in the world. But the country's children are innocent bystanders, trapped by such forces through no fault of their own. We have documented the murders of thousands of children and youth over the past decade, and still the violence continues. The brazen disregard for human life, particularly of poor children, is a profound and entirely unacceptable indictment on human rights in the Americas. Children's human rights -- to safety, to an education, to shelter -- must be championed, not trampled. But human rights are under siege in the country, as seen by some of the recommendations made by Human Rights Watch in the last year:

"Investigate Killing of Four Civilians ... Investigate Killings of Peasants ... Stop Efforts to Discredit Human Rights Prosecutors ... Probe Charges of Police Brutality ... Prominent Rights Defender Threatened."

Please keep in your prayers our work, especially the Casa Alianza team, who face dangers of their own every time we insist on bringing light and justice to the nation's street children. We are flawed, imperfect humans, trying to tackle a superhuman task: bringing hope to children living on some of the cruelest streets in the world. And, far too often, burying some of those same children.