Children Of The Favela: Brazilian bloodbath in a nation asleep


February 2004

In the 1990s the world woke up to the horrifying reports of children routinely shot dead on the streets of Brazil.  Many assumed that those days had been consigned to the pages of history.

During a recent visit to Rio de Janeiro, Sao Paulo, Recife and Olinda with a delegation from the international charity Jubilee Action, I discovered with dismay and anger that the carnage continues.  If flourishes in a climate of fear, silence and official collusion.  The streets literally run red with young Brazilian blood.

We began our mission by making a quiet pilgrimage to the church of Our Lady of Candelaria, (below) in Rio. It was here, in July 1993 that six police officers opened fire on a group of street children who were sleeping in some doorways opposite the church.  Today, a small cross, with the names of the eight boys who died, has been erected in front of Candelaria.  Their silhouettes have been etched in red onto the surface of the street.  Those dead boys, some as young as eleven, were Paulo Silva, Marcos Alves Silva, Paula Oliveira, Anderson Pereira, Leandro Conceicao, Valdevino Almeida, Gambazinho and the poignantly named Marcelo C. Jesus. (Seeing the image of Jesus in the form of these children, nailed again to a cross, should surely bring to mind His angry declaration that those who hurt a child would be hurled into the depths with a millstone around their necks.  The secretive death squads and those corrupt policemen and officials who continue to collaborate or acquiesce in the quiet assassination of Brazil’s young people should be reminded of that admonition every hour of every day until the killing stops. The scale of the killing is almost unbelievable.)

Alessandro Gama, Co-ordinator of Brazil’s National Movement of Street Children, says that between 4 and 5 adolescents are murdered daily; that every 12 minutes a child is beaten; that 4.5 million children under 12 are working; and that 500,000 children are engaged in domestic labour.  In 40% of crimes children are the victims.  The massive proliferation of small arms is a central cause.  One of the movement’s activists told me, ‘It is easier for a child to get a gun than to get a bus-pass.’

Alongside the greater accessibility to guns, what has changed since the 1990’s and deepened the crisis, is the emergence of a ruinous drugs culture. Formerly, Brazil was simply a transit country for the notorious producers of Columbia, Bolivia and Peru.  Today, Brazil ranks only after the USA as the second biggest consumer of cocaine.  In Rio’s 680 favelas – where about 25% of the city’s 12 million people live – this has led to the emergence of no-go areas controlled by rival gangs such as Red Command and Third Command, who organize and arm the children.  Children as young as four have guns and are used as ‘little planes’ – to use the jargon of the street- trafficking drugs and messages between sellers and buyers.

Although there has been no formal declaration of war, the children caught up in the escalating violence are child soldiers by any other name.

A young Englishman, Luke Dowdney, supported by Save The Children, has graphically documented the changing shape of the favelas in his “Children of the Drug Trade: a Case Study of Children in Organised Armed Violence in Rio de Janeiro.”  Chillingly he adds that a child’s chance of dying here is “eight to nine times greater than in the Middle East.”

I went into one of these favelas in the north of Rio and had a chance to hear some first hand accounts of the consequences of this undeclared war.  I promised those I spoke to that I would not use their real names.

The people who live in this particular district are descendants of the   Daily life in the favelas. slaves who settled on Rio’s hillsides after emancipation in the             nineteenth century.  Many of them are black

Rodrigo told me that he had come here, as a 10-year-old, from the countryside.  He had no education and remains illiterate.  He made a living carting water up the hill and by feeding the pigs. Later he got a job carrying boxes of beer. He married and together they had several children. Approached by one of the drug gangs he became a dealer and spent four and a half years in prison, where: “You’re alive and dead at the same time,” he told me.

Prison conditions are a national disgrace.  Rodrigo’s cell was so over-crowded that they took turns to stand and sleep.

An 11-year-old, nicknamed Cicero, and old before his time, interposed that, “The prison doesn’t teach you anything good.  It’s a university of crime.  You’re living with criminals even worse than you.  The drugs in prison are worse than outside.”

Rodrigo’s oldest boy is also illiterate and is now in jail.  The other children are on the fringes of crime.

One of Brazil’s powerful figures, Senhor Luiz Conde, Rio’s former mayor who now serves as deputy Governor in the state of Rio, repeats the tired formulary that “There is a school place available for every child,” and admits that, “The prisons are very bad, a nasty inheritance of the past.”  The reality is that many children are not in school, that some are too frightened to take places in schools situated in areas controlled by rival drug gangs, and that those in school often get a mediocre education at best.

Codne exudes an air of complacency and irritation, passing responsibility to other arms of government or to the failure of “society as a whole” to tackle the problem. Throwaway lines like, “There are more non-governmental organizations than street children” and “It’s easier to arrest Saddam Hussein than to arrest a drugs baron” say more about their author than his targets.

Rio has no integrated or co-ordinated strategy for eradicating its reputation as human charnel house; a city whose streets are an abattoir, awash with the blood of its young people.

In a surreal, Kafkaesque remark, Conde’s opposite number at the city hall, Senhor Antonio Vales, Rio’s deputy mayor, told me that “violence is not under the jurisdiction of the city.”  In the grandeur of what was once the sumptuous British Embassy in Rio, Vales said that he couldn’t comment on any of the fundamental issues because they were “too sensitive” and that there was little point them talking to the military police because, “Those talks are not very fruitful.”

These are not bad men but nor are they brave.

In the favela, I was reminded of the prophet’s words that, “Where there is no vision, the people perish.”   The merry-go-round of buck passing in Rio is like a carousel, which passes for coherent good government and courageous political leadership.

Probably the best hope for breaking this inertia and for imposing a nationwide strategy in Brazil’s 26 states remains President Lula Da Silva, who was elected with 61% of the vote and became President in a wave of optimism in January 2003.  Lula has himself – and very unusually for Brazil – risen from deep poverty and obscurity; but already there are inevitable disappointed voices asking where is the change.  If Lula cannot make the arms of government respond to this crisis he will deservedly lose his reputation at home and abroad.

I was struck by the remark of one youngster in the favela who told me that, “The only way to go up in society is to go through the trafficking of guns or drugs.”  The role models are young men with designer clothes and brand new motorbikes. They earn phenomenally more through the drugs trade than their fathers.  But, if they come to represent the only ladder on which the young can climb out of destitution, Lula will end up presiding over a dead country.  It is impossible to reconcile rhetoric about social justice and opportunity with the reality of corpses lying like litter in the streets.

It would be unfair if this account did not refer to the positive and hopeful initiatives that should provide men like Conde and Vales with a blue-print for concerted action.  They could do worse than to heed the calls of Jubilee Action’s partner in Rio, Sao Martinho, who advocate the need for an integrated programme of action.  We did see evidence of an embryonic strategic approach in the city of Recife.

A piece of sculpture in the heart of that city recalls the time, thirty years ago, when death squads routinely killed opponents of the country’s military dictatorship.  The sculptor has left the defiant words, “Torture – never again,” to exhort those who see his work to cherish the fundamental human rights that should be the corner stone of any democracy.

Near Recife, is the ancient Portuguese settlement of Olinda.  Here, in 1537, the Portuguese Governor, Duate Coelho, established Olinda as the first capital of the State of Pernambuco.  Simultaneously, the Jesuits built the first churches and provided the first opportunities for higher education in Brazil.  In 1582 the Benedictines established the truly beautiful Basilica e Mosterio de Sao Bento; and in 1641 the Jewish people built the first synagogue of the Americas. In 1986 UNESCO declared Olinda a world heritage site.

Brazil’s first law school was established here and the Declaration of the Abolition of Slavery was promulgated from Olinda.  More West African slaves were sent to Brazil than any other destination but, despite emancipation, many of their descendants continue to suffer disproportionately to this day.

Here too is the grave of Dom Helda Camara, the Archbishop of Recife and Olinda, who died in 1999 and was renowned for his outspoken opposition to the violence of the dictatorship and as a champion of the dispossessed.  Dom Helda famously said that when he provided relief for the poor they called him a saint, but when he identified the causes of Brazil’s acute poverty he was branded a communist.

Helda Camara’s book “A Thousand Reasons For Living” was a powerful crie de coeur against a society where human life had become devoid of value.

The echoes of the battles against slavery, poverty and injustice still linger in the life of Olinda and Recife.  For not far from the world heritage sites are favelas and slums that bring shame on us all.  In these shantytowns, assassins roam freely and with impunity and who, for as little as $4 a head, will kill a child or adolescent who has fallen foul of the gangsters and the drug barons. It is against the reality of this routine killing of children and adolescents that the bold words of Recife’s sculptor need to be measured.

In Olinda and Recife – where there is street crime, violence, and drugs in their 600 favelas – albeit not on the scale of Rio – I visited “Future Station” a project involving 12 partners from governmental organizations.  With the support of Crisotovam Buarque, the Minister of Education, and the Joaquim Nabuco Foundation, “Future Station” has announced the bold objective of working for “zero-percentage of children and teenagers at risk on the streets of Brazilian cities.”

Initially, they surveyed 2793 children.  They found that only 43% were enrolled in or going to school and that more than 400 were sleeping rough on the streets.  71% said that they went onto the streets to make money. However, the survey team were encouraged that a third of the children had a mother and a father, 72% were sleeping at home, and 88% were either at home or staying in an established household.  These were higher numbers than they had anticipated.

Following the survey, an integrated programme of action was brokered between government agencies from all levels and non-governmental organizations.  At an impressive centre, Future Station begins the long and painstaking business of reclaiming the lost children of the streets from a life of crime, drugs and sexual exploitation.

Young people have to leave their drugs at the door.  Drugs can’t be used in the buildings but can be reclaimed when the adolescents leave.  In place of drugs comes basic education and hygiene (most of the children are infested with worms picked up form the garbage dumps which they have scavenged for food).  As the children progress there are opportunities to train.  A suite of computers provides information technology skills that one-day will make some of these youngsters employable.

One young woman at Future Station, who had been abandoned by her parents, told me how she is struggling to bring up her young daughter.  Before Christmas an electric fan had fallen from a ceiling crushing the baby in her womb. Into her small home, she had taken another street child who had come to Future Station.  That boy told me how his father had thrown him into a bath to try and drown him, because the child had been unable to walk. Eventually he had gained his mobility and the first thing he did with it was to run away.

As the young woman and the young man told me their stories there was no trace of self-pity and a realization that the opportunity they now had gave hope for the future.

Elsewhere in Recife I visited three remarkable projects – all supported by the Catholic aid agency, CAFOD – and which were pioneered by an Irish priest of the St Patrick’s Missionary Society, Fr Anthony Terry.  The Kiltegan priest, who hales from Cork, has spent more than four decades of his life working with the Brazilian dispossessed.

At Galapao De Santo Amoro, a training centre has been developed that  provides everything from courses in the stunningly energetic and athletic traditional Brazilian dance and music to computer literacy.  The latter have proved so popular that 4,800 sessions have been held over the past year alone and more than 500 children are currently registered.  If resources permit, the number could be doubled over night: something Jubilee Action, together with a British businessman who joined our delegation, has committed itself to achieving.

Left: Irish priest Fr Anthony Terry, who has served the poor for more than 40 years

Santo Amoro is situated on the edge of one of Recife’s biggest favelas and is the most violent area in the city.  Last year, sixteen young people were shot, or died, as a result of either non-payment to pushers or from overdoses.  The youngest urchin was ten years old.  One of the workers at Santo Amoro, has seen his three brothers killed and the young woman who trains the dancers recently saw her brother gunned down.

At Comunidade Assumindo Suas Criancas (Community Taking Responsibility For Its Children) – an initiative born in 1985, pioneered by people of the local parish with the help of Fr. Anthony – the story was the same. Throughout the Peixinhos district young people at risk can come to the centre and develop skills and possibilities for their lives.  More than 150 children pass through daily – and literacy courses for adults are also provided. Ten educators are financed from a £20,000 grant given annually by CAFOD.

I was deeply moved to hear the tragic story of one of the mothers who helps at the centre.  Her 25-year-old son, Roberto Trinity de Concepione, died in her arms on the street after being mowed down in a shooting.  Roberto was shot in the back in a case of mistaken identity. His mother, Aurelina, told me: “We are overwhelmed by all this violence, but Brazilian society regards killing as normal.  Some people believe that, if the children are on the streets, it serves them right if they are killed.  We are trying to confront and fight this line of thinking.”

David with Aurelina de Concepione

Tellingly, she demanded to know why firearms should be freely available: “Children who can’t even get food to eat can get a gun.  74% of the killings are by gun.  I never saw a gun in my life and now they are everywhere.”  She described how two more young people, aged 20 and 21, who passed through their centre, had been killed in the previous week. One was another case of mistaken identity: “They took him from his mother’s arms and killed him.” The other had been a drug user who hadn’t paid his bill.

She wanted to know where was the international pressure to end the bloodbath.  Pointedly, she said that, “While the killers are free, it is society that is in prison.”

Roberto died just one year ago and unlike most people, who are cowed into silence by a fear of brutal retaliation, the people of Peixinhos rallied to support Aurelina de Concepcion as she organized a public procession of crosses and candles.  In all, there were eighty crosses – each bearing the name of men, women and children who had been killed over the previous two years. Repeat: eighty people from one small community in just two years.

At another project, in nearby Olinda, we saw the same pattern of compassionate care and a determination to resist the escalating violence.  We also heard more accounts of drug related violence.  They work with 94 children.  Last year ten were killed: 4 girls, aged 14 – 16 and 6 boys, aged 16 – 18. Project workers told me, “The law of silence is the law.  Nobody saw, nobody says, nobody does anything.”

Left: a memorial to 8 children shot dead in Rio.

Last year, when one young retarded boy who had been sniffing glue was shot by police, who were indiscriminately shooting as they pursued a robber, workers went to the hospital to protest: “Shut your mouth or else we will silence you,” they were told.  When the boy left hospital he was sent to prison, falsely accused of starting the shooting.  He still languishes there and his mother has said she dare not pursue her son’’ case because she is petrified or retaliation.

Yet, if all this is grotesque what we learnt about the fate of children in Varaduro suberb’s district, known as Inferninha – little hell – reads like pages straight from Dante and where the living might well envy the dead.

Inferninha is the area of Recife where child prostitution is concentrated.  Here, at least 40 children are known to be working as prostitutes – with more than 60 at weekends.  Some of the boys and girls are as young as ten, and some have been sent there by their parents to supplement their income. The men who exploit the children fall into three categories: the men who live in the neighbourhood; members of the police force, including senior officers; and foreigners who stay in pousadas, small local hotels and have the children brought to them.  When I asked whether the police simply closed their eyes to this I received the reply: “No, they go to the bars and the pimps every Tuesday for their share of the takings.”

We heard the appalling story of one young woman who had become a prostitute and was taken into this living hell by four men.  They gang-raped her.  When they were finished, they killed her, gouging out her eyes, ripping out her heart and throwing her, like detritus, into the sea.  Is there no barbarity of which man is not capable?

Another leading agency – who we can’t name – told me of 15 killings in one town, Gabuatao, on the Sunday before we met them.  The agency said that the authorities will claim that the children died at a dance, or some such pretext, “But we know it was assassination.  99% of these crimes are never judged because investigators simply refuse to come out to the favelas.” The police regularly humiliate young people and assume their guilt.  I was told of one case where a boy held in custody was reluctantly allowed by the police to attend his grandmother’s funeral: he was accompanied by six police officers and shackled by his hands and his feet.

As for the malign availability of firearms, we were told: “It’s easier to get a gun than it is to get a pass for the bus.”

In another macabre twist, Sao Paulo adolescents have now started playing Russian Roulette with loaded guns.  One youth holds the gun to another’s head and fires.  The consequences are all too terribly predictable both for the victim and in the twisted psyche of the other.

Being Jurado – when someone has decided to kill you – is another manifestation of their insidious culture of death.  It also leads to countless more assassinations often for banal and trivial reasons.

On raising these horrific cases with GAJOP, the Juridical Assessors for Popular Organisations, they admitted that the situation is bleak and that witness protection arrangements are not working.  They have submitted reports to the Brazilian government – who, in turn, have failed to honour their obligations under the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child which they signed in 1990.  The Convention requires Brazil to produce a report every five years detailing the protection that they are giving to children. So far they have failed to do this.  GAJOP will send their submissions direct to Geneva of February 20th if the deadline for submission is again ignored.

Brazil craves to be recognised as Latin America’s leading nation.  It says that it would like to become a permanent member of the UN Security Council – but if it cannot comply with basic Treaty undertakings (let alone enforcing its own model legislation on child protection) its reputation will be seriously compromised.  As GAJOP puts it: “The law says the child is a privileged person: the reality is that he is the prisoner.”  Like many others we spoke to they were highly critical of a proposal to change the age of criminal responsibility so that even younger children may be incarcerated in jail.

At the heart of the problem is a climate of fear and an unwillingness to speak out for fear of revenge.  In Sao Paulo, Waldenia Paulino, a Children’s Commissioner denounced the police officers who accosted a courting couple, raped the girl, and then shot her boyfriend.  Faced with death threats, Paulino has had to seek sanctuary outside the country.

Shining a light on this darkness has become a near impossibility.  When a brave journalist, Tim Lopez, who worked for Global Television Network, broadcast a report 18 months ago he quickly disappeared, was tortured and then shot dead.

Groups like the National Movement for Street Children are extremely wary of documenting cases or providing data: understandably, as one member who gave an American journalist information about child killings was found dead the following day.

GAJOP say that nobody is brought to justice and that, “The whole system is contaminated.”

It is hard for a European to fully comprehend how little value is attached to the sanctity of human life in the drug running favelas in Brazil.  Yet I saw countless examples of Brazilians – and others – who have plunged themselves into practical projects to offer relief and help to the children of the favelas and the streets.

I saw inspired projects in the heart of areas where violence is all-pervasive.  In Rio, for instance, the Sao Martinho shelters – including those visited by the late Princess Diana, John Major, the former British Prime Minister, and by Cherie Booth QC, wife of the present Prime Minister, Tony Blair – are a superb example of love in action.  But the men and women who give themselves tirelessly to these projects know that as well as addressing the symptoms there needs to be a radical and concerted attack on the causes.

Firearms must urgently be taken out of the equation; the drugs barons must be confronted; the police corruption eradicated; and proper educational programmes, based on all-day schooling, established, the promotion of good citizenship, human dignity and social justice, as well as equipping young people to find jobs and make careers.  The Jesuit Provincial in Rio, Fr Francisco Ivern SJ, was right to insist that, “Education is the only way for the children of the favelas to reach a better way of life.”  These children are the future of Brazil – and without them Brazil has no future.

The continued killings – at the rate of 4 to 5 every day – are a stain on the reputation of Brazil.  It is a scandal that so little has been said or done.  It is the intention of Jubilee Action to launch an international campaign to combat these killings an Members of Parliament in Britain and Members of the US Congress will jointly inaugurate a web site where every day the names and details of those who have been killed can be added. In the absence of any headstone, let their stories reverberate around the world until Brazil ends this killing.