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“Social cleansing” or Oliver Twisted

18 March 2009

Social cleansing” — limpieza social — is what El Universal recently called the “zero tolerance” policy (pushed by Rudolf Guiliani, who was hired to make recommendations to Mexico City’s police) that is forcing street children into prostitution.

I don’t want to romanticize the plight of the “children of the streets”, but I think they may have been better off living in the parks. It seemed, based on nothing but casual observation, that there was usually a food brigade, a laundry brigade and a “hanging out brigade” (the largest of all, naturally) that seemed to offer them some protection and structure.

I used to charge for doing some basic tourist assistance and research a basic fee of one set of kids’ clothes and a couple liters of milk.  Recognizing that a middle-aged foreigner going to visit a homeless kids” encampment could be easily misunderstood, I’d bribe a nun to accompany me when I’d drop off my ill-got gains with the kids at my local park.   The kids were, if nothing else, polite and better mannered than you’d expect from shoplifters, narcotics retailers, and glue sniffers.

I was hardly the only person doing this (and the nuns were happy to pitch in, even without a donation). Charity in Mexico is not — as in the northern countries — something you foist off with a check to someone else.  It’s hands on.  And… based in both the Indigenous cultures and in the Hispanic Islamic-Judaic-Christian tradition… the concept of charity as a benefit to the giver is strong.  One gives a peso to a begger not because you think “give a man a fish today…” but because it earns you a blessing… or good karma.  Yeah, you need to teach a man to fish, but before you do that, you have to get him a fishing line, a hook and a worm… and he’s got to have enough calories in his stomach to get to the river.

And fishing line, hooks, worms … and calories… require more than feeling the need for occasional good karma.  The Federal District provided some basic services like medial attention, and offered some drop in social service clinics, but there isn’t a lot of money available.  The Quakers and a few others — including the Brigada Callejara (which includes the Prostitutes’ Union, feminists and homeless advocacy organizations)  — offered some ad hoc assistance. At one point, mostly to shame the government into action, dissident teachers organized an open air school at the Angel of Independence.

It wasn’t an ideal situation, but it beat the hell out of what’s happened as a result of “social cleansing”. At least living in the parks provided the younger kids with some kind of protection and a semblance of a “home life” that’s been  lost when Guiliani recommended, and the Federal District adopted, anti-vagrancy statutes that made sleeping in the parks overnight a criminal offense.

Sure, it’s nice not to have to think about what image you might project walking though a park, but something important has been lost.  Rather than find appropriate shelter for the kids, the city simply made vagrancy a crime.  The kids… like other “irregularly housed” people have had to turn to hoteles del paso… the cheap bare-bones hotels that don’t provide keys — when you leave, you’re gone — meant for quickies, prostitution service centers and hideouts for socially unacceptable activities.

child-beggarThey may be sleaze-bag hotels, but they cost money.  The kids wouldn’t be living on the streets if they had the money for a place to live.  So… glue sniffing and drug dealing and shoplifting not being a steady cash income, they are turning to prostitution.  And, rather than being scattered throughout the city, are congregating in the areas where they can find the most affordable hotels.

Ironically, some of the hotels — rather up-front about what they really are — have the social conscience to at least post signs reading “no minors”… then renting to minors.  What choice do they have?

The Guiliani recommendations can be blamed on the PRD, and Marcelio Ebrard who spearheaded the movement to hire Guilani’s group to consult on security issues.  However, another childrens’ rights scandal is being blamed on either the indolent oversight or active collaboration, of those on the right.   The Iglesia Cristiana Restaurada” ran a chain of shelters… both for homeless kids and those in need of court-ordered supervision… that when not prostelyzing the kids, was prostituting them.

Several girls have simply vanished from the sect’s care; other children have filed complaints about abuse (sexual, physical and psychological).  It appears children who came before juvenile courts, but were not homeless, were forced into the shelters, even when responsible adult supervision was available within the family.

While there will be political posturing and attempts to lay the blame for the situation(s) at the feet of their opponents, there is plenty of blame for a basic human rights failure.  There are limits on what the State can do, of course.

The modern Mexican State was founded by any number of ad hoc Revolutionaries, some of whom had theories — socialist or communist or fascist or “liberal” — and is incomprehensible to outsiders, too.  And, it works well enough.  PEMEX, either a state agency that generates an income,  or a oil company with a bloated payroll and some eccentric divisions also makes no sense to outsiders… but is still functioning. The Mexican genius is in creating a workable solution and then coming up with a name for whatever it is.  The “Institutional Revolution”, the “paraestatal”.

The Mexicans are quite capable of resolving this crisis.

There are the resources, but it requires an incongruous cooprative effort between sex workers, the churches, the bureaucracies, the teachers and social workers, the Red Cross, possibly the Army (which provides health care workers and teachers’ aides in economically marginal areas now), the courts and the politicians.  And people willing to trade a peso or two (or … for people like Carlos Slim, a few million) for the good karma.

DIF (the federal/state social services agency) which is supposed to safeguard persons in need, needs to be reformed.  Lydia Cacho — who has written more on child abuse and prostitution than anyone — sees a serious problem in the organization’s structure, being normally under the control of the state governors’ spouse (when it was set up, no one thought that there would be women governors, nor that governors might be single).

What’s needed in the short run might be  cobbled-together, unwieldy and — to outsiders — incomprehensible, but if the kids have a safe place to live, to learn and to be kids… who cares what we call it?

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