Latin America and the Caribbean

9 August 1993

Murder by death squads has made life more dangerous than ever for Brazil's youngest, poorest and homeless

By Marguerite Michaels

Freedom--of sorts. Freedom from beatings by a drunken father. Freedom from fighting with seven siblings for a crust of bread. Freedom to hope. Cristiano, now 16, fled the abuse and violence of his home at 6. Surely the streets of glamorous, wealthy Rio de Janeiro offered a better life than the wretched slum west of the city where he was born.

In the streets Cristiano found only a freedom full of cruelty. During the day he survived by shining shoes and stealing watches or purses. At night on the sidewalks of Cinelândia, the main square in the center of Rio, he huddled close to a band of young friends for protection. Sometimes a rival pack of street kids attacked them, but more often the police came, swinging batons. Cristiano slept on a piece of cardboard near the majestic Municipal Theater and across the street from the National Fine Arts Museum. He was free to steal from others' lives, not free to live his own.

Slight, dark-skinned Cristiano is one of the lucky ones. After seven years on the streets, he moved to a shelter run by the São Martinho Aid Society. His room is small but clean. There is a television in the hall and food downstairs in the kitchen. The shelter kids work odd jobs during the day and go to school at night.

The unlucky ones stay on the streets. They live hand to mouth, wrapped in tattered gray blankets or plastic bags at night, washing windshields, selling gum, running drugs, begging, stealing in order to eat. Or they die, victims not just of poverty but of murder as well.

A familiar sight in Brazil's cities for decades, the meninos de rua (street kids) used to be considered no more than pests. But because they are increasingly blamed for the rising crime rate in Brazil's cities, they have now become prey: an average of four a day are killed. The most shocking attack came around midnight two weeks ago in Rio. Five men opened fire on a group of 50 sleeping children, killing three, ages 11, 14 and 17, on the spot. Two more died in the hospital from gunshot wounds to the head. Two other boys were dragged into a car and shot, their bodies dumped a mile away. An eighty boy died five days later, never waking from a coma.

Three military policemen were arrested for the shootings as Brazilians sought to address, once again, the escalating cycle of vigilantism. President Itamar Franco said he felt the murders "like a punch in the face," and protesters marched through Rio carrying banners that read STREET KIDS ARE OUR KIDS.

Yet many Brazilians had no sympathy for the victims. "Everyone is making them out to be heroes," says taxi driver Joao Mendes, "but they were not sweet flowers." Citizens calling in to local talk shows applauded the massacre. Says Alexandre Coelho Reis, 23, who worked in Rio: "Many of these 13-year-old kids have killed. They deserve to die."

Tens of thousands of homeless children haunt the alleys and boulevards of Brazil's major cities. "The typical menino de rua," says Roberto José dos Santos, who runs the São Martinho shelter, "is black or mulatto with lots of brothers and sisters. There is an alcoholic mother or stepfather. He, and increasingly she, has grown up in a climate of violence in a suburban slum. No one is concerned about keeping him in school. There is no love or affection at home, so he leaves."

Many kids work in gangs, sweeping through apartment buildings and stores, stealing whatever they can lay their hands on. Sometimes they kill. Last year in São Paulo, minors committed a rash of murders: a businessman shot in his car at a stoplight by a 17-year-old thief, a doctor shot by a boy of 12 robbing his house.

But mostly it is the kids who die. Some kill each other in quarrels over booty. Others die in clashes between rival drug gangs that more and more frequently employ the meninos de rua as drug runners or soldiers guarding turf. Many are stamped out by death squads hired by terrorized shop owners. Off-duty cops and ex-cops carry out many of the killings. According to a Brazilian congressional report, 15 extermination squads including policemen and private security guards operate in northern Rio alone.

If the three policemen arrested last week are ever convicted or murder, they could get multiple life sentences. But Brazil's record of imposing strict punishment on rogue cops is not good. International human-rights groups have denounced the military-police force as one of the world's most brutal. In greater São Paulo (pop. 16 million) last year, police killed 1,470 people. In nearly every case the military tribunals that tried them absolved them of wrongdoing. The police of Rio de Janeiro are especially corrupt. They provide cover for powerful drug lords, organize car-theft rings, and are often involved in kidnappings and robberies. Last year's congressional report called for the indictment of more than 100 members of death squads and changes in the prosecution laws. But so far, none of the recommendations have been carried out.

It will be no easier to get the kids off the streets. Cristiano's savior, the São Martinho Aid Society, is one of hundreds of private groups in Rio attempting to provide shelter, jobs and education. But resources are scarce. Last year the government promised $1 billion to finance internships and literacy programs; very little of that money has reached its destination. Says Ana Vasconcelos, who runs a halfway house in the eastern city of Recife: "There is no respect for these programs because they don't bring votes for anyone."

Brazilians are rightly skeptical of any solutions proffered by the government. In 40 years Brazil has gone from a predominantly rural country to an overwhelmingly urban one. Almost every major city is surrounded by slums mired in poverty, despair and violence. Out of a population of 152 million, there are 32 million children living in families earning less than $30 per person a month, a particularly bitter statistics in the richest economy in Latin America. The top 20% of Brazil's population earns 26 times as much as the bottom 20%; in the U.S. the disparity is 9 to 1. "It is no use killing street kids," says 17-year-old Rosimere at the São Martinho shelter. "There will always be more of them."

Many of Cristiano's friends have already died. A growing number of Brazilians fear that many more will be lost unless the country sees the meninos de rua not just as victims of brutal, corrupt police, but as the responsibility of a troubled society.

Reported by Ian McCluskey/Rio de Janeiro.


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