BUENOS AIRES -- A slim, red burn crosses the left side of Víctor's face from cheekbone to forehead. His eyelid is burnt. His lower eyelashes are gone, charred to the rim of his eye.
Only 3 ½ months old, Víctor faces a tough life.
"He got burnt with a pipe," says his 16-year-old mother, Marta, referring matter of factly to the pipe she uses to smoke paco, a cheap, highly toxic byproduct of cocaine refining.
With her baby in tow, Marta lives on the streets, begging and stealing, seeking shelter in dark porches or under trees. They rarely spend two nights in the same place. Many times they don't even spend them together. They eat what she can get, when she can get it.
Marta and Víctor embody the plight of the most vulnerable of Argentines, the street children of Buenos Aires, a city struggling to come to grips with in-your-face misery since the 2001 economic meltdown led the country to the largest debt default in history and plunged more than half of all Argentines into poverty.
Authorities estimate that today more than 3,000 poor children -- from babies to teenagers -- crisscross the city begging for money, scrounging through trash, snatching purses or juggling plastic balls for some change -- twice as many as in 2001.
Some of them have a home and a family to go back to at the end of the day, but at least 700 sleep on the streets every night, exposed to violence, hunger, sickness and drugs.
On a sunny November afternoon in Retiro train station in the heart of Buenos Aires, Marta hangs out with four other kids. Marta is lean and tall. Her black eyes look just like Víctor's.
Marta can't wait to see her baby walk. "He's too heavy to carry him around," she explains, scratching her flat belly through a hole on her white tank-top.
Víctor, like most street kids, is already nobody's child. He is not with Marta today. Nor is he with his father, 17-year-old Jonathan, who is in jail for stealing.
"The baby is with my mom," Marta says.
María, the mother of Marta, also is homeless. At 40, she hasn't held a job in more than a decade, and both her children have lived on the streets since their father died in 2001.
She says her grandson sometimes stays with her under the highway where she camps. But not today. Marta dropped him off and María let a couple of friends "borrow" him.
María wouldn't say why his friends took Víctor, but some Argentines believe that many of the women who beg on the streets of Buenos Aires use borrowed babies to soften hearts.
"He'll be back soon," she says.
Marta comes from a slum on the outskirts of Buenos Aires, like many street children in this city of 10 million people. Yet some kids come from the hinterland, traveling thousands of miles.
The city and its bustling activity are a magnet, and getting here is not difficult. All of Argentina's railroads converge in Buenos Aires, once the only exit port for the riches of the fertile and vast countryside.
THROWN INTO POVERTY
Argentina's slow descent into economic hardship started 30 years ago, experts say, but history hit fast-forward during the last decade.
Unemployment peaked at 18 percent during an attempt to privatize and open up the economy in the 1990s. In 2001, the economy collapsed, pushing almost six out of every 10 people into poverty. Argentina, which had long prided itself on its large working class, awoke to misery.
The impact on the country's poorest families was devastating. Many were shattered by hunger and despair.
Today, almost 50 percent of Argentine children are poor, according to government figures. City authorities say one-third of the 700 kids living on Buenos Aires streets left home to escape hunger. Another 40 percent fled abuse and neglect.
The implosion of the family is the main challenge for Buenos Aires officials, and their priority is to reunite the children with their relatives.
"We don't favor orphanages or institutions. We bend over backwards to take them back to their families," said Marisa Graham, director of the city's Department for Childhood and Family.
Last year, the government struck down a law that allowed the state to take street kids into custody. Now, the only case in which children can be locked up is if they commit crimes.
Buenos Aires' street children don't hang out alone. It's boring, they say.
They form gangs, or ranchadas, of 10 or 15 kids, most of them harmless. Their worst crimes are petty thefts and a growing drug problem.
Children of the same ranchada share the money they get begging or stealing. They buy food and drugs. They sleep on cardboard or dirty mattresses, packed together in human piles.
"The ranchadas work as physical and emotional support for these kids, who, under a facade of bravado, actually feel very vulnerable," said Emilio Zadcovich, head of the city's Center for the Children's Integral Assistance, known as CAINA in its Spanish acronym.
The center provides showers, food, play and some education to street children.
Dante is the 17-year-old leader of a ranchada that hangs out behind Buenos Aires Central Post Office, 10 blocks south of the Retiro train station. Marta used to belong to Dante's ranchada. Now she hangs out with other kids, he says.
"Ranchadas are very loose organizations, the children don't stick together very long," said Laureano Gutiérrez, deputy director of CAINA. "There are arguments, clashes of personalities, and some leave while others join. The leadership is not authoritarian, it's charismatic."
But the boss -- always a boy -- is still the boss.
"Dante is an undisputed leader. If Dante wants one of the girls in his ranchada, he gets her," Gutiérrez said.
Teen pregnancy is a growing problem on the streets. Just among the children who go to CAINA -- a small fraction of the kids wandering the streets -- the center documented 22 pregnancies in 2005, and 15 so far this year. Now CAINA is looking for private funding for workshops for young moms.
"The city's budget can't and won't fund this. But these girls badly need parenting skills. It's an absolute priority if we are going to give these babies a shot at life," Gutiérrez said.
A few blocks north of the Retiro station sits one of Buenos Aires's richest neighborhoods, Recoleta, where three-bedroom apartments go for $500,000. Its manicured streets and avenues, lined with old French-style buildings, once earned Buenos Aires the nickname "the Paris of South America."
"We don't go there very often. The police just chase you away, they don't want you there," says 11-year old Brenda.
Brenda looks like an average little girl. She is on the short side, has a compact body and wears a red cap. She is talkative and sports a permanent smile. But hidden under her clothes, Brenda has a bad case of infected scabies.
Yellowish blisters cover her arms, legs and torso. Her skin is swollen and red.
Much like its street children, Buenos Aires is a kaleidoscope.
Half a mile south of Recoleta, the Paris of South America turns into a third-world city. Piles of garbage bags line the streets of Constitución, a working-class neighborhood. Patches of dirt cover a square where children play.
"You should be careful. They're gonna snatch your camera," says Romina, a 14-year-old girl who hangs out in the neighborhood.
Roberto Gómez, a security guard at the station, knows what Romina is talking about.
"What's to be done with these kids? They should all be locked up. They snatch your purse, take your bag if you leave it unattended, tear off your necklace or steal your watch," he says.
Authorities are under fire for what some Argentines consider a soft approach on underage crime. However, the government argues against repression.
"Statistics show that 70 percent of the children that have been institutionalized end up in jail when they grow up," Graham said. "What these children need is a future."
On a breezy November night, Tatiana is lying on cardboard on a dark porch. Her skin is smooth and her hair is dyed red. She says that she left home four months ago and that she is 16. But she looks 12.
She opens her big brown eyes, a little glassy from drugs, and bites her full lips. "Sometimes I get very, very sad. And I can't eat. I can't sleep. I just lie here. What else is there to do?"
The last names of the children mentioned in this report were withheld to protect their privacy.