Proudly bearing the label ‘Rat Kid’, Gustavo has lived in Mexico City’s parks and sewers since he was just eight years old, when his ‘evil stepmother’ kicked him out of the family home.
Now 18, he says the past decade has taught him the skills required to survive on the tough streets of Mexico’s capital.
The young man currently makes $10 a day performing on the city’s metro, prostrating his naked torso across shards of broken glass and then asking for donations from horrified passersby.
‘Staying alive in this town means putting your body on the line,’ he told MailOnline, speaking from the encampment where he and 14 other abandoned children now live.
‘I’ve done everything from washing windscreens to selling my body to perverts,’ he says, inhaling deeply from a solvent soaked rag in his clenched fist. ‘We do whatever it takes to make a dollar.’
Gustavo, who lives by the motto ‘you can never trust anyone’, is one of over 15,000 homeless under the age of 18 living on the streets of Mexico City.
Left destitute by the death or abandonment of their parents, children from across the republic make their way to the capital in search of a better life. But when the city of 24 million people turns a blind eye to their plight, many end up living in the shadows.
17-year-old Emilia lives alongside Gustavo in their encampment in La Ciudadela Park in Mexico City, a fifteen minute walk from the famous Zocalo square.
‘My stepfather raped me when I was 13 and I became pregnant,’ she told MailOnline. ‘When he found out, he told me that he would kill me if I ever said anything.’
‘I had to run away from home and come to Mexico City where no one knew me,’ she said, refusing to name her hometown for fear of repercussions. ‘Today I have to sell my body to the very lowest perverts in order to survive.’
Unable to find honest work as a pregnant 13-year-old, Emilia gave birth to her son in a Mexico City sewer four months after she arrived in Mexico City.
Her child never stood a chance on the rough streets of the capital. Within six months, the baby boy died from heart failure, killed by the fumes of a solvent being inhaled by 29 other homeless people the mother and son shared a confined space with.
The substance that killed Emilia’s son was toluene, a colourless liquid used to make paint thinners, glue and disinfectants. It is common amongst the down-and-out of Mexico.
Users breath the harmful and flammable liquid – which they refer to as ‘activo’ – through a bottle or a soaked rag – known as a ‘mona’ – to induce an addictive feeling akin to drunkenness.
‘It keeps the hunger and the cold away,’ Emilia told MailOnline. ‘It also helps to take away my inhibitions, which is important when I have to do things that I don’t want to remember with clients.’
The prostitution is not limited to the young girls. Since the homeless children set up camp in La Ciudadela, the once-popular inner-city park famous for nightly Danzón dance practice, has become a seedy hotbed of sexual deviance.
‘We’ve had men coming into our tents and choosing whomever they want,’ says 15 year-old Donny, who has lived in the park for more than two years after his parents died and his family refused to take him in.
‘I have had to do things I never knew existed, that’s where the medicine we inhale really comes in handy.’
The Mexico City authorities turned a blind eye to the occupation of the city’s sewers and storm drains by homeless for many years. But they were forced to act in 2013 when more than 30 homeless people were found dead in a chamber underneath a roundabout on the city’s main Reforma thoroughfare.
Purging the city’s underworld scattered the homeless across the capital. Many of the minors landed in La Ciudadela Park where a thriving dance scene, local schools and a famous market have suffered as a result of their presence.
Lilia Velazco, who has lived across the street from the La Ciudadela park for over thirty years, said her neighbourhood has become a ‘living hell’ since the homeless minors were left alone to set up their tents three years ago.
‘They put their tents less than a hundred yards from the gates of a primary school,’ she told MailOnline, surveying the changes from her bedroom window. ‘Now the young children are terrified to play on the swings because they get abuse shouted at them.’
Lilia says that her neighbourhood has become a hotbed of crime.
‘They cut down the park’s trees to start their fires, they burn plastic bottles and the fumes come into my apartment, they sleep all day and then come out at night to rob and terrorise the local residents,’ she said.
‘They even steal electricity from the overhead cables and cause the lights to go out for blocks around.’
‘We’re living in hell but nothing is being done about it,’ she says.
Many of the ‘Rat Kids’ – name given to Mexico City’s homeless minors by the local residents – end up on the streets after their parents remarry.
‘Many of us have been chased out of our houses by step-parents’, says Gustavo. ‘The new partner arrives and puts their own flesh and blood first, and we end up on the streets.’
Others have been victims of organised crime. Alejandro, who comes from the dangerous Tierra Caliente region of Michoacán state, was chased out of his hometown after an opposing gang murdered his drug lord father and the rest of his family.
Now forced to live on the streets of the capital, he says that the 14 other people he sleeps alongside are the only protection he has against the brutal underworld in which he lives.
‘Local gangs are constantly trying to rob and extort us, you have to learn that you cannot trust anyone on the streets,’ he told MailOnline, ‘but we are blood brothers under this tarpaulin. The only reason we survive is that we stick together.’
Juan Antonio Cruz, known as ‘El Sin-K’, is a local gang member who extorts the homeless around La Ciudadela for protection money.
‘I protect them from everyone who is trying to kick them out,’ he told MailOnline, pulling deeply on his own solvent-soaked rag.
‘We are the people of Mexico City’s underworld, and we all get treated like dogs,’ he says, shortly before attempting to steal the MailOnline photographer’s camera. ‘But while that happens, we have to fight for who is going to be top dog.’
‘You can’t trust anyone in this life,’ says Gustavo, who says his dream is to one day own a house and have a family of his own. ‘I’m just glad that I learned that lesson so early on.’