Youth Torn Between Gangs and the Government

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


Brazil Portrait 1
Two youths play video games at an arcade in Rio de Janeiro.

It's easy to blur concepts like "inside" and "outside" in a favela.

Sidewalks are often narrow and darkly shaded, crowded on both sides by high walls, while living rooms can shine with light pouring in from openings in an adjacent brick wall. Scents mingle, as steam from a smoky pot of black beans drifts through an open door, merging with the smell of a banana peel rotting on the sidewalk. The sound of lightly rushing water -- it's unclear if it's coming from a sink, or if it's runoff pouring down the hillside under the sidewalk -- is backed by a faint blip-blip-blip, which sounds like water dripping into a puddle.

This time, the blips are coming from one of the local video game arcades around a corner. The arcades are small rooms that open onto the sidewalk and consist of a few television sets connected to PlayStation 2 consoles.

The longtime war between gangs and police in the favela gets a lot of attention, but on a lazy Saturday afternoon, the action inside the arcades is more representative of life here than any sort of gangland shootout.

Most of the people who join gangs in Rio de Janeiro are from favelas, and are between the ages of 13 and 25, according to the Observatory of Favelas, a nongovernmental organization based in Rio. It's easy to blur the distinction between those inside gangs and those outside of them. People confuse the issue all the time, assuming most of the favela's youth are soldiers in the war pitting gangs against police.

They're wrong.

Two young men are sitting on the arcade's couch, their backs to the sidewalk -- practically in the sidewalk's path, actually. Before they settle down, elbows on knees and thumbs dancing over their controllers, they lay down the equivalent of 75 cents for an hour of one-on-one competition.

"Mortal Kombat" is on display behind a white metal rack on the wall. But these two have chosen the game directly next to it -- "Winning Eleven," a simulation soccer match. Next Story »

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