Youth Torn Between Gangs and the Government

Stories by Monte Reel, Washington Post Staff Writer | Photos by Fred Alves for The Washington Post

The Song of Cell 10

Brazil Portrait 1
The halls of Rio de Janeiro's Padre Severino Youth Detention Center.

Alexander Pinheiro, head of security at Rio de Janeiro's Padre Severino Youth Detention Center, describes his job in bleak terms: staff shortages, stretched resources, losing battles. Imagine a man spread-eagle in front of a leaky dam, plugging holes with all his fingers and toes -- that's roughly the picture he paints.

He says, for example, that if the kids were allowed to keep the pencils given to them during school hours at the detention center, the cells soon would be covered with slogans of the drug gangs that rule many of the city's favelas. But one quick squint into the center's dim cells suggests the pencil prohibition doesn't accomplish much. The walls and ceilings are covered with gang slogans anyway. It is a weekday afternoon, and Pinheiro is walking past the hallway that runs down the middle of the cellblock. He hears singing voices coming from Cell 10, at the end of the hall. He stops and walks toward the noise.

Like all of the cells, this one houses about 15 to 20 boys. All of them are between the ages of 12 and 18, and they all come from favelas controlled by the Red Command, Rio's largest drug gang. The song Pinheiro hears is the gang's anthem, and the lyrics are directed across the hall, at members of a rival gang.

Pinheiro stops in front of the padlocked iron bars of Cell 10. The boys inside are shirtless, all wearing dark gym shorts, standing in flip-flop sandals on a wet concrete floor. Some of them are here for armed robbery, some for weapons possession, some for murder. One new arrival recently carjacked a vehicle with a friend, forcing out a mother and her 6-year-old son, who got his foot caught in the seatbelt; they dragged the child for four miles, dismembering his body.

Pinheiro knows their stories. He doesn't think Padre Severino will do some of them much good, but he has responsibilities and he has to do what he can. Sometimes it isn't much.

He tells the boys in Cell 10 to be quiet, and they stop singing. He walks across the tiled floor toward another guard at the end of the hallway.

"They shouldn't be singing a song like that," Pinheiro tells him. "We should do something. Maybe cut off their cigarettes or something." Next Story »

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