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In Rio, Death Comes Early
Juveniles Are Often Victims as Gangs, Police Vie for Control of Slums

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.

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.

The only time the police come into this neighborhood is when they enter in an armored vehicle, assault rifles drawn, on a raid. Joel has tried to stay out of the conflict as much as he can, but it's easy to get caught in the crossfire. That's what happened, he said, to his 16-year-old cousin, who had been with a large group of teenagers in 2004 when the police raided. He was fatally shot.

Like Marcos, Joel can't stand the police. But he said he has never been tempted to join a gang. Instead, he hopes military service will deliver him from the line of fire.

"I want to make my dad proud," said Joel, who hopes to graduate from high school in 2009 if he is not drafted. "My dad says that in the army they teach you things you can't learn on the streets, and that would be good for my future, for my whole life."

If someone were to randomly pick 100 teenage boys out of his neighborhood, Joel guessed that 30 of them would probably be gang members. That's higher than the estimates of academics and social workers, but it still would mean that Joel is a lot more representative of favela kids than Marcos is.

The Observatory of Favelas, a nonprofit organization that operates social programs in various slums throughout Rio, late last year released a survey of 230 teenagers who had been involved with gangs; 46 of them had died during the two-year research period, two-thirds of whom had been shot by police.

According to the Institute of Public Security, an average of 371 minors each year were reported murdered in Rio from 2002 and 2006. Because some people believe the officially reported figures of overall homicides in Rio are low, a Web site -- http://www.riobodycount.com.br-- this year began compiling its own count by collecting news reports of violent deaths. Overall, it has counted 675 homicides in Rio since Feb. 1.

"For young people, this is a genocide," said Raquel Willadino, a director of violence-related issues and human rights for the Observatory of Favelas. "And I don't mean that as a metaphor. It really is a genocide."

President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, prompted by the crime in Rio, met Friday with his military advisers to discuss the possibility of deploying troops in the city to help contain the violence.

But Willadino and many other social workers in the favelas are against ideas such as lengthening sentences for child-related crimes or lowering the prosecution age. The prison and detention systems are already stretched beyond capacity, and the police do not have a good track record in separating the good kids in a favela from the bad ones, she said. On her desk, she had a copy of a recent daily newspaper front page, with a large photo of a police officer searching the book bag of an elementary school boy -- a good illustration, she said, of law enforcement's indiscriminate approach toward favela residents.

Many police officials, meanwhile, express exasperation when they see things like that. Allan Turnowski, state director of police special operations, said those kind of pictures in the news media leave out an important part of the story. Just before the officers searched the backpack of the child in the photo, he said, they had found a gun in another boy's pack. The criminals force the police to be cautious, he said.

"The media doesn't show the good things we do -- just the sensationalism," he said. "They show the criminal the hero, and we lose all authority in the minds of the young people. Then they see the police as the bad guys."

Joel certainly does. He said he often feels like a target in the war between police and the gangs, even though he has tried to go out of his way to avoid it. Joel said that last month he was stopped by a policeman while riding a motorcycle a friend had lent him. The police officer told him to hand over all his money, Joel said, or else he'd be arrested and taken into custody for riding a motorcycle he didn't own.

He gave him the money, he said, and collected another story to explain why he wants the army to call his name.

"I'd like to be living somewhere else," he said. "Somewhere calmer, where I can breathe easier."

Special correspondent Fred Alves contributed to this report.

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