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Thrust into the front-line

BRAZIL: Antonio’s story began one sunny afternoon in a favela near Copacabana Beach when he picked up a 9mm pistol. It ended with his 10-year-old friend dead on the ground.


Sunday 19 August 2018, 03:00PM

Minors remain in custody as they await to be called for their trial at the Court of Children and Youth in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Photo: Mauro Pimentel / AFP

Minors remain in custody as they await to be called for their trial at the Court of Children and Youth in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Photo: Mauro Pimentel / AFP

Antonio, 17, calmly told a Rio de Janeiro judge that the death of his friend Marlon was an accident.

They had found the pistol under a water tank and were playing, he said, when “it went off”. Marlon was shot in the head.

“Had you used a pistol before?” the judge asked.

“Never,” Antonio replied, while his mother cried in the audience.

Antonio, who lives with seven brothers in the Cantagalo favela, has not attended school for two years. He’s been detained briefly for drug dealing, spent two weeks locked up for robbery, and now could face a more serious prison term.

“Life in the favelas is like that. You have to pray a lot that your son does’'t get involved in crime,” said his mother Vladereiz, 45, as she left the youth court in Rio, where AFP had rare access. She did not want her family name to be used.

In the waiting room outside the courtroom, there were a dozen other stories of young, mostly black boys who’d fallen through the cracks in favelas, the names for Brazil’s barely-regulated poor neighbourhoods, which range from shanty towns to long-established working class communities.

Often too dangerous for police to enter except in military-style operations, favelas are places where children and teens are thrust into the front-line between ruthless drug traffickers and the heavy-handed law enforcement.

Lining up before the judge were youngsters accused of everything from possessing marijuana to mugging in the rich tourist zones and armed car theft. Eight adolescents were accused in the murders of two other kids in a detention centre, hanging them with bed sheets.

Among the public was the grandmother of one of the accused, a woman in her eighties who appeared confused by the proceedings and then almost fainted as she left.

Street crime has been on the increase in Brazil’s second largest city since the end of the 2016 Olympic Games and the perpetrators are often disturbingly young – a phenomenon most famously explored in the 2002 movie City of God.

Favela kids grow up surrounded by drugs and firearms, meaning an early death for some and trouble with the law for many others. Official figures from 2012 recorded that 1.9 of every 1,000 adolescents in Rio had been detained at some point.

Sixty percent of young detainees are black, 66% are very poor, and more than half do not go to school and come from broken families, according to a study by the Instituto de Investigacion Economica Aplicada (IPEA).

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Of those detained in 2017, 41% were accused of drug dealing, 37% of robbery and mugging, 19% of causing bodily harm, and just under four percent of murder, said Degase, the correctional department for minors.

Many have fallen prey to the drug traffickers’ promise of quick money. Dealers like to use children because even if they are convicted, the maximum prison sentence applied to 12-18 year olds is three years.

One of those locked up, asking not to be identified, said he had left home at 14 and begun to “shoot” for the dreaded Comando Vermelho, or Red Command, which is Rio’s biggest drug gang.

Now just turned 18, he was at the juvenile court on charges of having stolen a car in the violent Rio suburb of Duque de Caxias.

“We have few opportunities. We are from the favela and people treat us like animals,” said the young man.

The head judge, Vanessa Cavalieri, said that poor youths have been let down by government policies. Still, they have a choice of path, she said, and her job is to make them realise that.

“I think early intervention by law enforcement is much more effective. Once they’re older it’s a lot harder to turn them back,” she said.

“When a youth is detained he loses the illusion that crime is good for bringing adrenalin or money and that he can do what he wants and get away with it. Many have got used to having no limits and here we show them that choices have consequences,” she said.

However, about half of the kids brought before her are reoffenders. And when they pass through the often overcrowded, unhealthy detention centres they often have nobody to shield them from a return to their old life.

There are initiatives that seek to break the cycle, like ‘Young Apprentice’, which offers businesses tax breaks for hiring adolescents.

However, there is considerable reluctance to hire young offenders. There are 300 adolescents ready to enter the program but the justice department and its subcontractors currently only hire 20.

One participant, 16-year-old Emilio, who was arrested for robbery, said the opportunity would make him “a new person”. Some, he said, turn down such a chance, “discrediting all of us”.

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