Youth Torn Between Gangs and the Government

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

Cells Divided

Brazil Portrait 1
A holding cell at Rio de Janeiro's Padre Severino Youth Detention Center.

The boys sit on stone-framed bunks, their bare backs hunched. With daylight still strong outside, a yellowy glow streams through holes in the wall that separates this cell from a courtyard. A couple of boys take a shower, standing under a thin stream of water that flows directly out of the wall by the corner. Afterward they walk naked to their bunks, across a wet concrete floor.

There isn't a lot to do in the cell, other than sit around and talk. Smoke cigarettes. Maybe burn some words onto their forearms with matches.

The children sent here, ages 12 to 18, aren't provided much, a fact that workers here blame on budget restraints. In general, conditions in Brazil's penal system have been legendarily meager for decades, turning the cells into petri dishes where renegade social orders multiply with viral efficiency.

The Red Command, Rio's largest gang, began in a prison in the late 1960s. For its founders, the gang gave the prisoners a voice, helped them take charge of conditions inside their cells and demand better services, more respect. More recently, another gang -- called the First Capital Command, or the PCC by its Portuguese initials -- formed in Sao Paulo's state prisons, creating its own system of laws as members banded together to deliver more resources to incarcerated brethren and their families outside. As the gangs grew, they turned toward drug trafficking, arms dealing and other crimes to finance themselves and grow. Last year, PCC-led riots protesting prison policies spilled out of Sao Paulo's penal system and into the streets, where buses burned, buildings were destroyed and hundreds died.

In this particular juvenile cell, everyone is affiliated with the Red Command. When the boys arrive -- whether they are active gang members or not -- they are assigned a cell depending on which gang controls the favela they call home. Of the 10 cells in the juvenile detention center, eight are designated for the Red Command.

Last month, the wife of the new governor of Rio de Janeiro state visited this juvenile detention center and later sent a team inside with a video camera to take footage of the cells and the bare light bulbs that weakly illuminate them at night. She was appalled by the lack of resources, the bedding, the lack of hygiene. Her husband, who has made fighting violence his top priority, took notice. Among other measures designed to crack down on the city's violence, the governor last week announced a planned overhaul of conditions within this center.

Of course, not everyone approves of the governor's approach. Last Sunday, someone killed his family's security guard. Next Story »

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