Down in one of the "black zones" of Bogota, the kind of neighborhood where thin ominous men lean silently against doorways and taxi drivers reach over to make certain their back doors are locked, two ragged boys and a bearded man stood contemplating each other in a kitchen that was warm with cooking smells.

The bearded man was gentle-eyed and not very big. He had pushed up his shirt sleeves to stir the soup, and he wore clean, round-toed tennis shoes. The smaller boy was mestizo, with a thick black crew cut, redrimmed eyes, a battered denim jacket and good-sized hole in the front of his T-shirt. The larger boy ate purple grapes from a cellophane bag, his fingers turning color as the grape juice streaked the dirt. His pants were torn, his hair hung damp curls over his forehead, and he looked very much like Oliver Twist in one of his darker periods.

"We want to come in here," said the mestizo boy.

The bearded man, whose name is Manuel Ospina, put his foot up on the low industrial stove. "Sure, kids," he said. "But the problem is that we don't have any room. Where are you sleeping?"

"In Avenida las Americas," said the boy.

"Which part?" Ospina asked.

"By the bridge," said the boy.

"Near where the Avenida crosses 68th Street," said the other boy.

Ospina gave the soup a stir and thought about this for a moment. "Look, my children," he said. "Next week, we will have room, because the group we have here will go to another house. I will come to look for you then. What are you doing during the day?"

"Begging money," said the mestizo boy. He began to talk very quickly. "When my mother died, my father left the house. My mother died six years ago and there were 10 of us. My father left and he said he was only taking the littlest ones with him. I was 7 and so I couldn't go with him so I went out on the street. I went back to the house once but no one I knew was around and some other people were living there. I'm 13 now." He looked like he was about 8.

The mestizo boy stopped talking for a minute and looked at his friend. Then he said to Ospina, in a voice so smalll it was hard to hear him, "Can we take a bath?"

MANUEL OSPINA, who went back to his soup while the front hall echoed with splashing and laughter, is part of a remarkable Columbaian organization whose mission is rehabilitating the brittle, dangerous, self-reliant street children that Colombians call gamines . You can see them, small groups of disheveled boys tussling on the grass or sleeping in the sun, on the streets in front of the city's fivestar hotels.

Visitors are told to remove wedding rings, earrings, watches, necklaces, and eyeglasses before venturing into the streets here. Columbia is famous for its thieves, and among the most artful and least expected are the hungry 10-year-old boys who will, if pressed, rip the gold earrings straight out of a woman's pierced ears.

They live, by the description of those who have done it, in a world without schedules or walls or fathers who used to come home, stinking of liquor, to strike the nearest child.

They sleep in alleys or on public stretches of grass, or in foul hotel rooms paid for with the day's booty. Sometimes, they huddle together inside telephone line tunnels where the wind and rain cannot reach them. They smoke tobacco and marijuana and drink anything that will warm them up. They eat what they can beg from restaurants or buy through theft -- a corn cake, a hunk of chocolate, a plate of cooked meat with rice and plantains.

They can get from one part of town to another by leaping onto the back of a moving bus. They are professionals by the time most boys first pick up a safety razor -- they can pick a car lock, disconnect a burglar alarm, snatch a cab driver's watch while he waits for a traffic light. Some cab drivers have taken to wearing their watches on their right hands. Gamines , it is said, have learned to shove a lighted cigarette against the driver's dangling left hand so that when he cries out and grabs the burn with his right hand, the boy can pull the watch and run.

"Gamines here always go through a metamorphosis," said Ospina, whose own years as a street child were bacak in the 1940s. "At the age of 15 they almost always turn into full-time thieves."

THE SLOW and delicate work of reclaiming street boys before that metamorphosis can take place begins just outside Bogota' in the Ciudadela de los Ninos de la Florida, a pastoral cluster of brick classrooms and dormitories run by a Catholic priest, the Rev. Javier de Nicolo. After nightfall there, while the dinner dishes are being washed, groups of ex-gamines head into downtown Bogota to search for gamines who might be enticed off the street.

"We know the language," said Jose Miguel Hernandez, the 22-year-old elected "mayor" of the Ciudadela. "You don't say reloj [watch] -- you say bobo. Anteojos [glasses] are cachos . If you haven't lived on the street, it's as though they're speaking Russian or Chinese. So you go over to them and start to talk. 'Hey, friend, steal much today? Police giving you trouble? Where's your gang? Where are your pals?'"

In their initial astonishment at hearing talk like that from a well-dressed, spuare-shouldered young man like Hernandez, the gamines generally pay just enough attention to let him drop the hook. There's a party out in the country, he will say casually -- swimming pool, free food. A bus will take you if you want to come. More often than not the boys' interest overcomes their suspicion, and it is at those parties, usually at pools rented for the occasion, that the ex-gamines introduce the basics of the program that gave them a home, a skill, and a high school education.

Then they take the boys back to the street, mentioning that the doors to the small "black zone" center in Bogota are always open to gamines . The next move, Hernandez said, is the boys'.

From that point on, the foundations of the Ciudadela program are liberty and independence -- the two things, Hernandez said, that a gamin cherishes most -- plus the same self-reliance that has taught 9- and 10-year-old boys to support themselves on city streets. The challenge is infusing that self-reliance with trust, self-respect and some sense of the future. "The first thing we have to do," Ospina said, "is convince them that everything around them is not rotten."

There are no guards at the complex. There is no physical punishment. The rules say boys can leave only on weekends, but if a boy gets itchy enough he can simply cut across a cow pasture and catch the next bus. Floors are cleaned, dishes washed, and the general peace maintained by the boys within the community. During their first few months the boys are shuttled all over town -- to school, home for lunch, out to workshops -- because no child of the streets is going to endure a full day inside the same four walls.

"It's very easy to leave," Hernandez said. "You want to go, just walk out. But getting in is harder. In the other programs, run by the police, it's the other way around. It's the easiest thing in the world to get in, but to get out, you have to be Papillon."

Nernandez said the severest punishment his 450-member community has is expulsion. The boys sleep, eat, and hash out group problems in 15-person houses. Boys who fight are made to walk around with arms linked, which generally becomes so ridiculous after a while that one or the other starts to giggle. Shrikers from household chores are simply ignored or treated with effusive kindness -- "Oh, please, don't trouble yourself, we'll wash up your dishes for you" -- until guild, and the old fisheye by the boy in the next cot, brings them around.

HERNANDEZ first walked into the Bogota center 10 years ago, after three years on the streets. His family was poor, there was never quite enough, and he had left home the day he realized that he could support himself as a gamin. "I was a very good thief," he said. "But there comes a moment when you say, 'well, it's about time I had a bed I could count on, a meal I could count on.'"

As the Ciudadela's major, chosen in an election that was preceded by a lot of partisan hoopla and extravagant speeches ("I promised absolutely nothing," he said with some pride), Hernandez is, for his six-month term, the resident senior arbitrator and public relations man. He addressed his fellow residents as "Usted," which conveys more respect than the familiar "tu," and with consuming pride leads visitors through the machine shops and classrooms where young teen-aged boys are bent over drafting tables, welding guns, trays of printers' type, and geography books.

There is a similar setup in the southern Colombian city of Cali and at a farm in the north. They have survived mostly on government grants since the program's founding in 1970, but the expenses have grown along with its success, and finances are turning into a major worry. "Economically," said Hernandez, "it has very big problems."

Still, the evening forays into Bogota are turning up far fewer gamines than they used to. "It used to be like an invasion of rats," Hernandez said. "We used to go out [and] find a hundred or 200 in an evening. Last night we found only about 15." Why? "Well, we're in the program. Others -- they grew up and they're in La Picota [Bogota's federal penitentiary]. . . . And now there are cops all over the place."

And they are not all success stories."There's a large percentage of loss of children," said Ospina. "Why do we lose them?" He paused, and for an instant the sorrow was plain in his face. "First, because the kids of the street are badly fed in their infancy. So due to this, the kids don't have much power of perception. They don't understand what we're trying to teach them. And second, they go to work in a factory -- or in a school -- and they can't get ahead. They grow bigger, and they're still in the same place -- so they go."