Murder in the name of "social cleansing"MEDELLIN, Colombia – He sits alone on the pavement outside the central station of Medellin’s gleaming new commuter train, his eyes rarely rising above the knees of those walking by.
At 14 and looking younger, Daniel is a raggedy doll. Dirty hands pick at a sore on the bottom of his grimy foot. Shrouded eyes seem lost in his filthy face. His ears listen, but Daniel offers only the barest response.
"I like it on the street," murmurs Daniel, who has slept there these past four years. "No one bothers me here. I am free."
Free to live. Maybe even freer to die.
People such as Daniel, human rights advocates say, all too often are targeted for murder by vigilantes, police and merchants – by anyone with a twisted will to do what he believes is good for society by doing something bad to those he doesn’t think measure up.
Colombians call it "social cleansing." It is a euphemism for murder.
"These people are considered disposable," says Paolo Costello, a journalist who conducts social research in the tough working-class neighborhoods of Medellin.
More than 2,000 people were murdered in Colombia last year for purposes of social cleansing, according to the government’s Institute of Legal Medicine and Forensic Sciences.
"Violence against ’socially marginalized’ (people) is slowly growing in the principal cities, revealing grave situations of social intolerance," states the Colombian Commission of Jurists, a leading human rights group, in its latest annual report.
Street children, petty thieves, prostitutes, transvestites, flamboyant gays: All can become targets.
Because they smell, they may die. Because they steal, they may die. Because they love differently, they may die. Because, some say, they don’t fit, they may die.
In a country awash in violence, human rights advocates say, social cleansing flows from a bloody quest for order.
Though the practice’s death toll pales in comparison to the nation’s overall murder rate, social cleansing’s calculated inhumanity chills many Colombians.
Medellin offers plenty of potential victims.
Hundreds of street people hunker a few blocks north of the main metro station in the shadow of Medellin’s prim City Hall.
Teen-agers, men and grandfathers gather on stoops, in cheap beer parlors, among the stands of sidewalk merchants, drinking, arguing, passing the time. Entire families set up house on the sidewalks, offering things for sale that few seem to want.
The streets reek of dried urine and feces, of sour meat cooking on sidewalk fires, of citrus rotting in the sun. Cheap sugar cane alcohol gurgles down throats, spills down chins, joins stains on torn shirts.
In September 1996, according to the Commission of Jurists, members of a "private security organization" pulled up to a downtown Medellin bus stop and riddled eight "indigents" sleeping on a stoop with automatic weapons fire. All eight died.
The armed men had visited the site several times in the days leading to the massacre, warning people there to leave, according to the commission.
"I’m not in agreement with social cleansing," says Duque Monsalve, 44, who sells ice cream along a stretch of Maturin Street that is home to many beggars. "I’m not saying they should kill them. But something has to be done. The government does nothing with these people. We all suffer for it."
Street children such as Daniel, 14, are often targeted for murder by vigilantes, police and merchants – anyone willing to do what he believes is good for society by eliminating those he thinks don’t fit in.