In Rio, Death Comes Early

Rocinha is Rio de Janeiro's largest favela, or shantytown, and occupies a hillside overlooking some of the city's wealthiest neighborhoods.
Rocinha is Rio de Janeiro's largest favela, or shantytown, and occupies a hillside overlooking some of the city's wealthiest neighborhoods. (Photos By Fred Alves For The Washington Post)
By Monte Reel
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, April 16, 2007

RIO DE JANEIRO -- The sound of crackling explosions entered through the glassless window of Maiza Madeira's home, a hollow-brick shanty wedged deep within the narrow, twisting alleyways of this city's largest hillside slum.

She lifted her chin to acknowledge the noise, paused, then dismissed the sound as quickly as it had come: "Fireworks," she said.

Each time she hears a rapid-fire noise like that, she said, the pause that follows marks the instant in which she takes quick inventory of her children. She has three, and she considers it her mission to steer them through childhood safely. But they live in a favela -- a shantytown that doubles as a battlefield, fought over by the neighborhood's ruling drug gangs, the police and, in some cases, vigilante militias -- and safety is hardly guaranteed.

In this neighborhood, called Rocinha, almost everyone has a story about how violence penetrated their homes. Many of the stories, like Madeira's, focus on children as central characters, whether as victims of crimes or as perpetrators.

The favelas are statistically the most violent sections of Rio, a city where the number of juvenile deaths attributed to violence far exceeds that of many war zones. From 2002 through 2006, 729 Israeli and Palestinian minors were killed as a result of the violence in Israel and the occupied territories, according to B'Tselem, an Israeli human rights group. During the same period in Rio de Janeiro, 1,857 minors were reported murdered, according to the Institute of Public Security, a state research center.

In the past three months, several high-profile crimes have sparked renewed national debate over children and violence. Brazil's Congress is considering applying harsher sentences for crimes involving children, and possibly reducing the minimum age for criminally prosecuting teenage offenders, which is now 18.

Residents here say they have plenty of cautionary tales involving their kids.

Madeira said it was three years ago when she learned to identify the sound of fireworks so accurately. On the first night of Rio's annual Carnaval celebration, she said, her 16-year-old son was out with friends at the favela's dance hall. Celebratory fireworks had been popping all night, but one particular eruption caused Madeira to sit up in bed.

"What was that?" she recalled asking her husband.

"Just fireworks," he had told her.

She slept uneasily until another sound -- someone insistently banging on the aluminum door of their house -- woke her at 4 a.m. One of her four children had been fatally shot by a raiding unit of military police.

Shocked Into Action

In February, two armed carjackers tried forcing a woman and her 6-year-old boy out of their vehicle in Rio. The woman escaped, but the boy's foot got caught in the seat-belt strap. He was dismembered as he was dragged alongside the car for about four miles.

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