Murdering innocence: when children are privileged witnesses of criminal violence

By age 3, a child’s neurodevelopment allows him to gently kick a ball and express himself in five- or six-word sentences. He can already associate some colors with his name and is beginning to understand the concept of counting. At that age, he still mixes fantasy with reality, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. Thousands of kilometers south of where that guide was published, in the Punta de Rieles neighborhood, a 19-year-old young man —ordered by a drug trafficker from the La Chancha neighborhood, according to Telemundo— killed two people in the space of a month. In both cases, a 3-year-old boy was present, those three years between which fantasy is not yet distinguished from reality.

First, on October 3, this 19-year-old young man shot the boy’s father at the intersection of Hidra and Colibri, but the minor suffered more than a traumatic experience: a bullet left him in CTI for a month. Then, in November, a few days after being discharged, the boy was transferred in a van together with a friend of his father, his wife and another boy. Without having managed to stop the march, they fired from a motorcycle and caused the death of the driver.

In cases like this, the Victims and Witnesses Unit of the Attorney General’s Office is one of the first to arrive at the scene if the prosecutor in the case requests it – and they do so more and more. Its director, Mariela Solari, highlighted in dialogue with The Observer that childhood “is the stage in which children learn to learn, but all their energy goes into trying to preserve their lives” in those cases in which they live with crime every day.

With the increase in crimes in the last two decades, more and more children are being bought a ticket in the front row to witness the most violent images that society can give: brutal femicides, settling scores, daily contact with drugs and mutilations. His psyche is altered from the beginning of his life and, many times, forever. From the Victims Unit (which was created in 2017), which is where the first approach is made, an attempt is made to coordinate with the children’s families and health providers so that they have medium and long-term assistance that allows them to embark on a long road to repair damage, which is often irreversible and all that remains is to live with it.

The five or six words that can be spun at 3 years old were used by a girl from Montevideo, who saw how, due to a reckoning, they mutilated a relative. She was the same age as the youngest son of a couple, who she saw together with her 6 and 10-year-old brothers, how they riddled his parents in Colonia Nicolich when they were walking to drop them off at school.

Beyond the children who are direct witnesses, in difficult neighborhoods there are many indirect ones who grow up living with it. Every time there is a homicide, the area is fenced off, but neighbors come to see what happened. Among them, many children, who watch without astonishment. “Many kids in the neighborhood circumstantially see these issues. I always ask the police to please take them out, ”he told The Observer, Homicide prosecutor Adriana Edelman. Her colleague, Mirta Morales, had told El País that she sees more and more children gathering around a corpse, which they look at without showing emotions “as if it were something natural.”

In other cases, the children do not look from the outside. They are in. In 2020, a young man was arrested for having killed a man with whom he competed in the drug market. The murderer was accompanied by his 10-year-old brother, who helped him sell drugs and who had given him a weapon, according to the elder, to use in self-defense, according to the sentence he agreed to The Observer. The young man had to convince the Justice that it had not been the boy who had killed his contender.

— What did you order him to do? asked the judicial officer.

— To attend to the people who went to the gate, the questioned answered.

—To the people who were going to buy drugs?

– Obviously, there it goes.

— After the shots, where did you send him?

— I sent him to the corner of Marco’s house to see if he was alright and everything was alright.

The drug game

One noon, children play on the floor of a dark house. The windows are always closed and no sunlight enters. When a kick at the door and a shout to stop break the calm of a normal day, they look at Mom and Dad. They always look at mom and dad.

The police take them away, they lift them off the floor and fill their hands with the little stones wrapped in paper with which they played until minutes ago. “Parents wrap chasqui (dose of base paste) and children play the same. They take gravel and wrap it with the same leaves that their parents wrap the real one”a policeman told The Observer.

After removing them from the place, the Police check their toys. They take the heads out of their bears and open their school bags. The drug traffickers think that they do not know that they hide the most important thing there, where they believe that the troops will not suspect.

save mom’s life

He felt a blow from behind, at head height, he fell to the floor on his knees with his son and continued to hit him. Crawling, she reached a stick, with which she struck back at her ex-partner. Quickly, he attempted to choke her by putting her arm around her neck and twisting her head.

He dragged her to the bathroom, where he grabbed her by the neck again to finish choking her. The child, crying, walked behind them and lay down on his mother’s chest who, lying on the floor, was hardly breathing. He, who was the child’s father, when he saw it, hesitated for a second. That second of doubt made the woman twist the fingers of her hand to get free of her. She asked him to please call the ambulance and he refused. The boy looked. She, or he, convinced him and ended up calling her and saving her life on November 3, 2018.

Child psychiatrist Laura Viola agrees with Solari that, In many cases, it weighs on the child witnesses of domestic violence that they have not been able to preserve the lives of their mothers. they feel guilty. Also, in most cases, children are hostages.

“The little girl says today if her father was going to kill her like her mother,” the sister of a victim of gender violence declared in a trial in 2021. “I am afraid that he will kill me and hurt the girls and at night, what do I know”, she had told days before her partner, the father of her daughters, ended her life with a knife. Before, she had already threatened to cut the throat of the minor, who was only 3 years old.

One night, he finally went down from the bedroom to the kitchen and took a 33-centimeter-long blade, with which he began to stab the woman, which ended up being 19. The girls woke up, and the oldest, 6 years old, tried help his mother. The two, bloodied, went to ask her great-uncles for help, but there was nothing to do.

“The Madman Killed Mom”They told them.

how to follow

“Open and alert”, is the premise that Mariela Solari repeats to her technicians so that they have it tattooed on fire when they go to a crime scene. There, they answer the children’s questions and try to coordinate with the adults in charge the steps to follow: what to do, what not to do, what things to watch out for, how to talk to them. In turn, when they talk to them, they analyze their needs. If they are in crisis, they are referred and if they need some other type of intervention, they manage it.

The main thing is that children are left in the care of a caring adult who contains them and can take responsibility for them. If that possibility does not exist, they give way to the INAU so that they can have them in their 24-hour centers. Throughout the judicial process, in cases where it is necessary, they maintain monitoring.

INAU also intervenes if the Victims Unit understands that the child’s support is fragile and needs extra monitoring. The Local Reception Committees (CRL) study each case and coordinate actions with the schools and the providers of the children to have a follow-up in the medium and long term.

The psychiatrist warned that a diagnosis of the child should be made to see how deep the traumatic experience penetrated.

If the children are removed from the environment in which they were, they should still maintain contact with the healthy affections that they had in that place, so that the disruption is not so great, he explained.

Regarding shock, the psychiatrist assessed that it is more likely to have a better resolution of the episode if it was something punctual than a chronic or continuous event. Even if the victim of the homicide is a stranger, the familiarity component does not exist in the child, but there is a visual impact. “One of the approaches is to talk to a child psychologist or psychiatrist to understand what they saw. It can be recreated through play, so you can process it,” she says.

Solari added that the children who “they coexist daily in climates of extreme violence, they over-adapt basically because they have to survive. So, they are children who have a very adult discourse, which they have naturalized, as if that did not affect them. But in reality it is the high degree of damage, that what they do to them is impermeability to what is happening to them.”

On the other hand, Viola stated that cognitive behavioral or interpersonal therapies “can greatly help the child to survive these events.” Although, perhaps, innocence is dead forever.

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