AT 10.15 every weekday morning under a bridge in downtown Rio de Janeiro, one of Brazil's best-known artists, Yvonne Bezerra de Mello, visits 11 dirty and disease-infested children hoping they have survived another night on the streets. Six months ago at another primitive campsite near one of the city's most beautiful churches, they almost didn't. In what became known as the 'Candelaria killings', four gunmen, three of whom were police, allegedly opened fire on the children killing eightof their friends and critically injuring another one. 'They make a lot of noise. They steal, they pick pockets all the time - they have to survive. They were here for four months and no one cared,' de Mello said as she sat in the blazing sun outside the church where the children were murdered. 'This case - it was a blitzkrieg. To strike like that, to me, it was war. It is street cleaning. It is easier to kill than to set a youth policy.' There are between 700 and 1,200 meninos da rua, street children, aged between four and 18 living in Rio de Janeiro on an idyllic stretch of South Atlantic coastline. Most spend their nights avoiding the civilian and military police, of whom at least 100 are said to be paid members of death squads employed by local businessmen, storekeepers and drug lords to sweep the streets of the homeless kids who turn to violence and crime to survive. Children like seven-year-old Andre, whose angelic features belie his craftiness and, de Mello says, his tendency for violence, roam the streets in search of tourists and residents to rob. Some, like the homosexual-transvestite leader of the gang clothed in a skin-tight floral dress, search for perverts willing to buy their bodies for sex. Others make their way to the Copacabana and Ipanema beaches to make whatever money they can through whatever means possible; shining shoes, selling candy, acting as drug couriers or look-outs, and robbing tourists with impunity - under Brazilian law, children under 18 cannot be prosecuted. The children sniff shoemakers' glue and nearly 90 per cent are believed to be addicted to drugs. They smoke marijuana, drink cheap beer and scavenge through putrescent piles of rubbish for scraps of food. They urinate in the street and harass people. It is not surprising that some local people believe they are a curse to society. Most of the population treats them like animals; they use or reject the children, but invariably loathe and fear them because of their ruthlessness. 'These children will rob you and kill you and then go and have an ice-cream,' said German businessman Christian Baumgartner, who has worked in San Paolo for three years. 'Death means nothing to them, not like it does to you and me,' de Mello said. 'They see it all the time. Their friends are killed. They make strong friendships because on the streets that's all they have. 'They don't know what a bedroom is or what it is to eat at a table or to have new clothes. How does a kid like that see the world? Never to have a toy, to have shoes or go to a toilet - it's unbelievable,' she said. 'They are primitive, yes. A thousand years ago people lived like that, they hunted whatever targets, whatever animals they have to hunt to survive. These children live the same way - but in the city and they hunt humans.' Locals tell tourists to be wary of the street children, but in the same breath issue warnings about police officers who rob tourists at gunpoint of their wallets and sneakers. Corruption among government officials is rife. A federal government committee is currently investigating allegations that more than 30 politicians misappropriated federal funds. An estimated US$60 billion from corruption, drug and arms trafficking, gambling and prostitution is laundered in foreign bank accounts each year. Brazil is the world's fifth largest country with a population of 152 million and a monthly inflation rate of 30 per cent. An estimated 32 million children live in abject poverty, or below the 'misery line' as the Brazilian euphemism describes it. The richest five per cent of the population, including de Mello and her hotelier husband Alvari Bezerra de Mello, earn 80 per cent of the country's income. Of Rio's nine million people, most live in slums called favelas built into the granite mountains that rise behind the beautiful ocean. Unemployment is rampant and the average monthly wage is between $60 and $100. As extensive as the poverty is, it is not the children's greatest problem. Murder is. An Amnesty International report compiled from Brazil's Federal Police statistics revealed that 4,611 children and adolescents were murdered between 1988 and 1990. A Brazilian Attorney General's office report stated 5,644 children aged between five and 17 met violent deaths between 1988 and 1991. Human rights organisations estimate that up to four children are murdered in Brazil each day and very few of the killers are ever brought to trial. Amnesty International spokeswoman Allison Sutton said 674 children were killed in Sao Paolo in 1991. Only 335 cases reached the judicial stage. In 1992, 424 children under 18 were slain in Rio, the tropical paradise dotted with $300-a-night hotel rooms. Last year, 320 children were killed in that city before July. A Federal Parliamentary Commission conducted an inquiry into 'the extermination of minors' and concluded that several law enforcement authorities were involved in the murders. Local drug lords or shopkeepers are believed to have hired 100 civilian and military police to form death squads to kill the street kids who either know too much about illicit drug deals or who adversely affect tourism. '[The commission] found that police were the third largest causes of homicide in children and adolescents,' Ms Sutton said. 'A Rio state inquiry into the Candelaria killings in July and the killings of 21 residents in the Vigario Geral shanty town in August found there was large scale police involvement in seven linked death squads, a very strong police involvement. 'From the investigation it appears that there is a very extensive involvement of police in extortion and a number of other illegal activities,' she said. 'They kill people who know too much and kids who act as drug couriers or who have been extorted by the police and then know too much and have to be killed to keep quiet.' The police death squads usually kill one or two street children at a time, and then dump their bodies in remote areas. 'With what we earn, it is a great temptation for the men,' said military policeman Colonel Jose Carlos Machado from northeast Brazil where 15 death squads operate. 'I still don't understand why they kill children, though. They can't earn that much for killing an adolescent.' Mercenaries were responsible for the Candelaria killings on July 23 which became the cause celebre of Yvonne Bezerra de Mello. Outside the Candelaria Church on the busiest roadway in Rio's financial district, de Mello conducts a daily, hour-long vigil to highlight the street children's plight. It is here, sitting over the blood-red painted outlines of eight slain children, that de Mello hopes to get justice for the lost kids. Four men opened fire on a gang of 45, mostly sleeping, children at about midnight. Eight were killed, shot in the head. Three died on the spot. Two died later in hospital. Another two were forced into a car and murdered outside town. The last child died in hospital, having never woken from a coma. Three policemen and another man have been charged with the massacre. Wilson Machado, the Rio homicide detective heading the investigation, said police know their colleagues are involved in the death squads but will rarely inform on them. 'They kill for mercenary reasons the first or second time because it's difficult. But after a while, killing becomes easy,' he said. Public opinion polls revealed 16 per cent of Rio De Janeiro's population supported the shooting as a means to an end - getting the kids off the streets. 'Everyone seems to agree with the killings,' de Mello said. 'The first reaction was 'yes, yes, you have to kill them'.' On a local talk-back radio show one man seemed to sum up the city's attitude: 'Many of these children have killed. They deserve to die.'