Los Pirañitas (little piranhas)
I never imagined what I would find. After arriving in Lima with an intention of photographing a story on “Los Pirañitas” I contacted CEDRO (Centre for Information and Education for the of Drug abuse, www.cedro.org.pe), an independent organisation subsidised by the Peruvian government and foreign capital whose main initiative is preventing drug use in Peru .
CEDRO only designated one person (a part- time employee) to work with a group of young street people called “Los Pirañitas” . “The Piranitas” consist of children and young people who fled their predominately large rural family environment. Most likely they suffered physical and sexual abuse, neglect and other traumatic ordeals in their upbringing. In their desperation, they escape to the cities in search of a better future. However, their dreams of freedom and social mobility vanish. The reality is, they have, little education, poor training and limited social skills and are rejected by employers. The public and government institutions cannot carry the weight of such individuals and they slip through the system and are abandoned by society. Ultimately, these young people end up living in the surrounding streets near the Rymac River: a river which crosses the historic centre of the Peruvian capital, Lima; they live in between garbage and decay, but with other young people who are in the same situation and who offer shelter and support. They subsist through begging, theft and violence for money, food, clothing and drugs.
The name ‘Los Pirañitas’ (The Piranhas) comes from the famous Amazonian killer fish; piranhas are blood addicted fish which hunt in groups, attacking their victims out of nowhere, leaving no traces behind they destroy everything and disappear just as quickly as they appeared. In the youth known as ‘Los Piranitas” the vast majority end up as drug addicts, most commonly inhaling sniffing glue, called Cola, out of plastic bags because it’s cheap and available. This numbing dependency (a short buzz which must be repeated every few hours) provides an escape from the dramatic situation in which they find themselves. Inhibitions disappear, euphoria and inebriation are just a few of the effects of inhaling this toxic drug which is extremely addictive. There are no real and definite statistics on how long the body can sustain continued use of this type of glue, but the degradation of the body; including lungs, central nervous system and internal organs, is very fast, causing death by cardiac arrest for the vast majority of young people who consume daily. They also become easy targets for gangs that take advantage of them, which use ‘Los Piranitas” to commit crimes and before long they are also killed and found where they spent their short lives…. The river, the landfill, the street.
My experience with the Pirañitas was bittersweet: some days the kids were good and we could talk, share parts of the day together and at other times they were extremely moody and violent; it was better to leave them be to avoid problems. The daily consumption of ‘cola’ produces a manic bipolarity for these kids, and shapes their days accordingly.
Many of these young people were in halfway houses or orphanages, all supervised by CEDRO or other organisations. These types of rehabilitation centre have a strict zero tolerance drug free admission process and if someone is caught at the centre under the influence of some kind of drug or with possession, they are automatically expelled and find themselves again in the streets.
Under these circumstances, one wonders if an addict can stop being one? I found no answer, as no rehabilitation programs offer a gradual detoxification of drug addiction.
Many of the young people I photographed admitted that they willingly went to these centres because they desire and are desperate to change their situation and improve their lives. The sad reality is that their prolonged addiction is so strong that it is too difficult to overcome and they fail and eventually get kicked out of these centres which offer help; Resulting in a return to a life by the river near landfills around the city.
Organisations increasingly devote less and less resources to help with these types of groups because the economic cost is high and the success rate low. Since it seems that zero tolerance policies don’t work, the big question is why not change the policies of the rehabilitation centres?
In the end, I felt that no one cared about a bunch of young people addicted to glue.
Hopefully by bringing more awareness to the Pirañitas shows there are many vulnerable young people suffering from abandonment and neglect from public institutions and society itself: these are young people who are just looking for a place to live in peace and harmony and make a decent living in this world. Just like the rest of us.
This is a photographic work done in Rio Rymac in Lima and in a couple of children residencies run by CEDRO.
Pere Masramon is a documentary photographer based in Mataró, Catalunya. Check more of his work here: peremasramon.com