TEGUCIGALPA - Streaks of grime cover the boys' bodies and insects crawl on their heads as they scour through heaps of trash alongside buzzards that seem large enough to carry the kids away.
Brothers Carlos, 11, and Noel, 9, are dragging a pair of plastic bags filled with fast-food refuse while Ruben, 14, chases after a dump truck spilling fresh rubbish.
Here comes 6-year-old Giovanny, yanking at the brothers' trash bags to pick through crumpled boxes of fried chicken. He's known as El Pollo -- The Chicken -- for his love of the morsels he scrapes off the tossed-out bones.
- An estimated 80 percent of the Honduras' population of 7 million is poor.
- More than half of Honduras' population, about 3.5 million, are children. An estimated 2 million of them live in poverty.
- The rate of children working at the dumps in Honduras is higher than countries with larger populations, such as Mexico and Brazil.
This is life for the children at the main municipal dump in the capital of Honduras -- a life of far-too-early desperation in a country where nearly two-thirds of the population lives in poverty.
Many Latin American nations have pepenadores, Spanish slang for people who scour garbage dumps for recyclable goods they can then sell. But Honduras has the highest rate of children working at the dumps -- an estimated 2,000, according to the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF).
"The level of boys and girls in poverty and going to the dump is big and growing every day," said Héctor Espinal, a spokesman for UNICEF in Honduras. "Those children represent the poorest of the poor."
Espinal applauds the current Honduran government's effort to rid the dumps of children, even as he urges authorities to move more quickly and diligently to put a total end to the child pepenadores.
"The country has taken some measures that, if continued and expanded nationally, will have an impact," Espinal said. "But they are not moving fast enough for a problem that deserves a prompt response. The funds exist, the methods exist. What is needed is motivation."
Some progress has been made through a government program launched a year ago. New ordinances prohibit the entry of children and pregnant women at the trash sites and there are new programs to send the kids to school. So far, 189 have been enrolled in the capital.
But authorities estimate it will take at least three years to put an end to the children working at dumps across a country, about the size of Tennessee, of 7.3 million people.
"Every barrio has a dump," said Rick Beck, a Christian missionary who visits the Tegucigalpa city dump each week to deliver food and prayer. "It's a way of living. The problem has to be attacked spiritually, physically and emotionally."
Soledad Ramírez, director of social programs for Tegucigalpa, said the effort will require a long-term commitment.
"It's not just to rescue the kids. It's to educate them and insert them into society," she told The Miami Herald. "Many of these children grew up in the dumps. There were even children in cribs there."
About 500 children -- the majority of them boys between the ages of seven and 17 -- are now estimated to be working at several dumps around the capital. About 50 remain at the main city dump, down from 200 before the government launched its rehabilitation program for the kids.
But the number is expected to climb again during the approaching holiday season as poor families desperately search for that bit of extra income.
"Our program is to give them a new way of life," said Mario Najera, head of the youth program in Tegucigalpa. "Because of the poor situation our country is having right now, they are forced to go to work in some places that are not quite right for anyone." Some of the kids say they virtually grew up in the dumps. Others say they found the work on their own or through friends.
Brothers Carlos and Noel began picking through the foul smelling dump after their parents were killed by robbers earlier this year: "The robbers wanted money," said Carlos. "They didn't have any so they killed them."
The brothers, who now live with their grandmother, said a friend led them to the dump and showed them how to collect plastic bottles, which they then sell to a recycler. The boys make about $2 a day. The nation's per capita income is $890.
"I like it here because I make money," Carlos said as he sucked on a chicken bone taken out of the trash. "I give the money to my grandmother. She makes money washing clothes, but she's old. We have to help her."
Ruben is the oldest of three brothers, but works alone at the dump to help his single mother. He said his father "left with another woman when I was a little kid."
Giovanny is the second oldest of six siblings, ages 8 to 8-months old. His mother, Jenny Ordóñez, said she has no other way to earn money and can't afford to keep her boy out of the dump.
"Everything you do is out of necessity,"said Ordóñez, 26, a single mom. "The truth about my son is that he likes to work. Thanks to God, I am surviving."
When the dump trucks roll in, it's a mad dash to get to the refuse. Men and boys tend to push the women off the mounds, and no one seems bothered by the smell, which at times is so foul it burns the nostrils and makes the eyes tear.
The pepenadores are too busy collecting anything they can use -- some shoes they can wear, a semi-broken toy they can still play with, a piece of cake they can eat, a bit of metal, plastic bottles or paper they can sell.
"The problem is that they make more money in that dump than they do with an education," said Kim Beck, who helps her missionary husband deliver food. "It's the only recyclable program they have here, those people going through garbage."
Even though some of the kid pepenadores have been enrolled in schools, not all of them stay there, and some educators are finding it difficult to teach them.
"I used to collect bottles and paper," said Jessica, 11. "I like school better so I can learn."
But Jessica, like many others, is doing poorly academically and absenteeism is high. She remains in the first grade, despite efforts to upgrade her to the proper age level.
"The kids don't come to class regularly," said Jessica's teacher, Regina Palma. "They don't come clean or with their homework done. So they don't advance."
Advocates of the children's program are offering incentives to parents by promoting memberships in cooperatives that pack recyclable products fetched from the dump. Plans also are underway to provide training for other job skills.
At least one cooperative financed by an Italian non-government organization has made a difference in the lives of 24 women who used to work at the dump alongside their children, and now are partners in a business that packs plastic bottles fetched from the dump.
"This program has helped me a lot," said Dionys Gómez, 34, president of the cooperative, who worked at the dump with three of her five children. "My kids would be embarrassed now if they had to work at the dump."
When they worked at the Tegucigalpa dump they earned about $10 a day. Gómez is now paid at least twice as much at the cooperative and can afford to send her children to school.
"I don't want those kids to go back to the dump," said Gómez. "My hope is that the cooperative grows big and provides steady work. There has been a little progress, but so much more needs to be done."