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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)

What followed was a national outcry, partly because of the boy's death, but also because one of the carjackers was 17 and couldn't be charged with a crime.

Since the dragging death, Congress has taken preliminary measures that would strengthen penalties for adults who involve children in crimes, and it has debated lowering the criminal prosecution age to 16. For now, though, police say they still feel handicapped by the law.

"Some of these guys we are fighting now are 10 or 12 years old," said Rodrigo Oliveira, a civilian police commander who heads a special operations unit that fights gangs inside the favelas. "I might know of this kid that is doing a criminal act, but under the law, I can't consider him a criminal. Nowadays, the gangs are using kids under 18 to do their worst crimes because they know they won't go to jail."

Instead, they are sent to juvenile justice centers, where they spend a maximum of 45 days before being enrolled in a state program designed to educate and rehabilitate them. The maximum sentence for juveniles is three years in those programs, but maximum sentences are rare. Most young offenders spend weekdays in a rehab program for several months and are free to stay at home on the weekends.

At the Padre Severino Youth Detention Institute in Rio, about 185 boys crowd into 10 dank concrete cells every day. The inmates are assigned cells not by age -- they are all between 12 and 18 -- but by which gangs control the favelas they call home.

The other day, Marcos, an angular 17-year-old with a quick smile, sat on one of the stone-framed bunk beds at the center. He described himself as a drug dealer, a robber and a killer, and said he has been sent to Padre Severino five times since he joined the Red Command, Rio's largest drug gang, at age 12. In February, police raided his house while he was sleeping and found unlicensed guns.

Marcos had always known gang members in Cantagalo, a favela overlooking the famed Ipanema beach community. He said that when he was 11, he tried to join the gang but was rejected for being too young. So he launched a charm offensive, snatching necklaces from women in Ipanema and bringing them back to the favela to show the gang members what he could do. By the time he was 12, he said, they took him in as a delivery boy. Sometimes he carried food for them, sometimes drugs. He always carried his own .38-caliber pistol.

"I moved out of my home when I was 13, and the gang became my family," said Marcos, whose last name is being withheld because of the detention center's policy. "If we went dancing, we went together. If we went to the beach, we went together. If we decided to rob someone, we did it together."

He quickly became a dealer, pocketing about $125 a week, he said. He recently became a manager controlling all drug sales within a specified section of the favela. His income roughly tripled. Instead of a pistol, he began carrying a machine gun loaded with 7.62mm bullets.

Marcos said he was 14 when he first killed someone. A guy in the favela had gotten a virgin pregnant, and a gang leader ordered Marcos to administer lethal punishment. He said he has since killed dealers who have stolen from the gang, as well as others who tried to rat to the police. He doesn't always like doing it, he said, especially if the victim is someone he considers a friend. But they all know the rules, he said, and had agreed to play by them.

"I don't fear death," Marcos said, smiling slightly. "I make fun of it. If it's time for me to die, I'll die."

In the Crossfire

Joel Ferreira Silvestre, 17, sat on a concrete step outside his house, around the corner from a small cluster of men slamming at the sidewalk with pickaxes. They were laying a new length of PVC pipe to deliver water to one of the houses. That's the way things work in the favela -- people do not call a public utility when they need such work done, because utilities don't serve them. Nor do the police, which means that the young man sitting on another step several yards from Joel could lean to his left and light a joint from the end of his friend's cigarette, secure in the knowledge that no one would try to stop him.


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